Last week a nightly news anchor, someone whose journalism I typically respect, started his program by listing the sixteen different women who had accused President Trump of varying degrees of sexual harassment and assault. The presentation was spurred on by the President calling out Senator Al Franken for the sexual abuse he inflicted on tv personality Leeann Tweeden. With each successive name and alleged accusation the anchor ticked off the list, he seemed to become more satisfied with himself and the quality of his “reporting.” Yet, as he progressed through the list, I couldn’t help but think, “Is this where “journalism” has gone? Is this how the free press feels they can best serve democracy? Is this not the worst way to begin a discussion about sexual assault if your intention is for all sides to listen?”
Now, please do not misinterpret what I am saying here. I believe that each of the accusations needs to be investigated to the fullest extent possible in order to figure out what exactly happened and bring justice if it is due. However, at a moment when the country is so divided, I do not necessarily think the top of a news hour is the time nor venue for that accounting to occur. I also do not believe it does anything to further the very important conversation this country is having about sexual abuse, harassment, and assault.
If anything, it is more of a distraction and counterproductive than beneficial to anyone in anyway. In fact, I think in a lot of ways, starting a show in such a partisan way diminishes the perceived veracity of the accusations and just pushes the two sides of the divide further apart, causing one side to almost immediately tune out of a conversation that needs to happen. Yet it seems more and more this is what our free press is doing and in a lot of ways journalists are endangering themselves and the profession they call their own.
When journalists, editors, and producers trade-in objective indifference for invested emotion, choose to make news instead of report it, and favor the flash of opinion editorials over evidenced-based reporting, the institution of the free press suffers a crisis of legitimacy and democracy is diminished. Furthermore, when the sensational becomes preferable and the unremarkable but consequential becomes dismissible, hard news, the type of news that is essential to the well being of a democracy, loses its hold on the public’s consciousness and becomes susceptible to being confused with “fake news.” In a period of time when the role of the free press is continuously under assault by the President, and people’s faith in its purveyors is faltering, it seems that journalists are only inflicting more mortal wounds upon themselves by lessening their commitment to objectivity and becoming more opinionated.
This evolution is not one that happened over night, nor with the advent of Donald Trump, the politician. However, it seems that the more the free press is questioned, the further it slips down the slippery slope upon which it rests, and in a lot of ways, more effectively discredits itself than an antagonistic president ever could. The seemingly unstoppable slide that continues today began twenty to thirty years ago during a time in which we witnessed a fragmentation of the media environment like never before.
As cable news came of age, and the internet era began, media outlets multiplied. Consumers were granted the opportunity to choose getting their news from a wider array of sources than ever before. At the same time, newspapers and media outlets had to adjust their business models to remain viable in a vastly different environment than that which existed previously. Given that media outlet’s revenue is generated from advertisers, and that the amount they can charge those wishing to advertise with them is directly related to their readership or viewerships levels, media companies have had to figure out how to attract more subscribers in an evermore competitive market.
In an age of ever increasing political polarization it seems that the formula media outlets and newspapers have settled upon is a move from the center of objectivity to either the right or left, entering a space that on both sides of the aisle has come to be filled with subjective conjecture presented as news. If you are on the liberal side of the spectrum you can tune into MSNBC or CNN, or pick up a New York Times and delight in an editorial slant that suits your views. If you are a conservative, you turn on FOX News or read the Wall Street Journal and have your views reflected back to you.
The problem with this formula, while it may very well pay the bills for those who make a living as members of the free press, is that it not only turns off a lot those who want news from the middle, it also pushes the two sides further apart. When all you hear is how bad the other side is, how could you ever find common ground? When certain media outlets become nothing more than a mouthpiece for a particular point of view, is not their influence diminished?
The sad thing is there are some incredibly talented journalists, both in print and on television, on the left and right, who have fallen prey to the media environment they find themselves in. Maybe editors and producers are pushing them towards being more subjective, or maybe they are just getting swept up in the larger, more bitterly partisan world we seem to be stuck in. Which one it is, I am not sure. What I do know is that this is not what the free press was intended to look like nor how it was supposed to function. I also know that what we are being given is far short of the standards by which journalists use to hold themselves.
When the factual reporting of hard news loses favor to bombastic blowhards spewing partisan hot air and when reasoned debate devolves into tribalistic conjecture, we all lose. Nobody wins in an environment where verifiable facts are dismissed simply for political reasons and fake news is accepted as fact when politically convenient. The troubling thing is, this where we are, and it is not because of Donald Trump. No matter how much he would love to take credit for the diminution of our free press, he is not the cause.
Instead it seems somewhere along the line, the objectivity of the free press was hijacked by an ever increasing pressure to chase profits, and in doing so, the calculus was arrived at that the old journalistic standard of objective fact would have to fall prey to subjective thought. It seems that corporate media managers have forgotten that journalism, at its very best, does not pick winners and losers, does not speak for one team or the other, or inject itself in the debate. Nor does does it replace resourced fact with speculative conjecture and innuendo. The free press is and always should be free to print and broadcast whatever they deem fit for the news. After all, they are the free press. However, they may want to remind themselves that they are a very important part of our democracy, and in remembering that fact, start acting accordingly.
Since before the United States was established, it has long been accepted that a free press is a necessary part of any free society. Often times referred to as the “fourth estate” in the United States, alongside the three branches of the federal government amongst which institutional power was divided by the Constitution, the importance of a free press has rarely been questioned given its protection being so prominently placed within the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Ideally, the free press operates as an illuminative instrument of the people, shining light upon the government and its officials ensuring that they are upholding the commitment entrusted to them, and sworn by them to, “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
While this arrangement has not always been the most comfortable for those holding public office, it has generally been accepted as a necessary evil of democracy by those who wield the instruments and power of the government. As President John F. Kennedy once said,
“There is a terrific disadvantage in not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily. Even though we never like it and even though we wish they didn’t write it, and even though we disapprove, there isn’t any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.”
Though President Nixon would probably beg to differ, given that his administration was felled by what many consider the height of investigative journalism that exposed the Watergate scandal, the role and the importance of the free press has rarely been questioned by those under whom the spotlight has been turned. Yet as I have argued in this article, the free press has been under assault in recent times, from the outside as well as from within.
The attacks from outside have been transparent enough that their lasting impact will likely be one of little direct importance. After all, when a president lashes out and calls anything he disagrees with “fake news”, his cries can be dismissed just as easily as a boy who “cries” wolf whenever he sees a shadow move in the dark. When the application of such a misleading term is applied only to adversarial sources and stories, its legitimacy is diminished and only further undermines the slight to which the President has perceived to have been dealt. However, I would argue that the way the press has reacted to such claims by the President, and the way in which the free press has devolved over the past few decades – becoming one that is much less objective, more partisan, and ultimately less influential – are much more concerning and dangerous to democracy than a delusional man seated behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.