August 17, 2016
By Neil Cosgrove
On August 14th, Donald Trump unleashed a series of tweets in which he set about blaming the “disgusting and corrupt media” for his dismal poll numbers. This is an old trick, of course, in which the “media,” short-hand for a huge number of digital, broadcast and print outlets located on a broad and diverse spectrum of perspectives and ideological orientations, are lumped together as a single adversary, allowing the “us” to feel embattled and aggrieved by the “them,” which may or may not encompass everybody who sees things differently.
“It is not ‘freedom of the press’ when newspapers and others are allowed to say and write whatever they want even if it is completely false,” Trump tweeted early in the afternoon, which brought a grim smile to my face, since he so obviously has the freedom to say and write many things I might regard as completely false. The short answer to his claim is that permission to say and write what he might argue is false is as good a definition of the freedom of the press as any other.
Trump has said that he would like to change established law regarding provable slander and libel once in office. His ambition is to reverse decades-old high court decisions that established a distinction under the law between supposed slander or libel of a public figure, rather than a private citizen, and required a burden of proof for libel that demonstrated a media outlet both knowingly and maliciously published something untrue about a public figure. Without such a high bar, the Supreme Court decided, freedom of the press really would be threatened. As it is, many corporations and wealthy individuals currently seek to discourage criticism of their practices by filing frivolous slander and libel suits they know have no legal merit, simply because those entities know the targets of their suits can’t afford to “lawyer up” in the way they can. Individuals and organizations who dare to criticize the wealthy can be driven into poverty and bankruptcy in the process of defending their first amendment rights.
What really irritates Trump and other thin-skinned public figures is that various reporters claim the right to do something other than act as stenographers, simply recording and playing back the public figure’s utterances, or repeating without comment the various manipulative statements and performances created by their underlings for public consumption. To actually juxtapose a point-of-view different than that of the offended politician, or to cite information contradicting that politician’s proffered version of reality, is to exhibit bias, which is supposedly “unfair.” Without such reporting, Trump says, “I would be beating Hillary by 20%.”
It was only a few months ago that the same villainous media were being criticized for providing Trump with an uncritical platform, through which he was able to garner the attention that propelled him to nomination as the Republican presidential candidate. In their lust for ratings, the complaint went, television channels in particular were guilty of giving Trump air-time under the slightest of pretexts, and discriminating against his primary rivals in the process.
Being habitually ahistorical, political discourse in this country tends to ignore that the expectation of supposedly “unbiased” or “objective” reporting doesn’t go back much further than a century; even in the heyday of supposed standards of “objectivity” for professional journalists, such reporting was always more aspirational than ingrained. Fifty to sixty years ago, as I was coming of age in Buffalo, NY, the city had two daily newspapers: the Evening News was accepted as the Republican outlet and the Courier-Express as more Democratic-leaning. The Chicago Tribune was as obviously conservative as Fox News is today, and it took the fulminations of Spiro Agnew to convince people that the big East Coast print and broadcast outlets were part of a “liberal media elite.”
Any moderately reflective member of the “stinking media,” as Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette labels the blackguards, knows what I’m talking about. Editors, reporters and commentators know they do not have a privileged perch on God’s shoulder, where they can see all, know all, and, most importantly, understand all. Editors choose what stories are worthy of an outlet’s attention, and how that story should be “framed.” Reporters select sources, take notice of certain information while ignoring other information, and construct narratives they suspect will have the most appeal to their prospective audiences. More highly placed individuals—executive producers or managing editors, for instance—may decide to green-light or “kill” some reporter’s product based on their own, all too limited point-of-view.
For decades, supposedly “objective” editors and reporters deliberately suppressed information about the sexual behavior of the rich and powerful, and about the often associative exploitation of women by the same. For decades, the only news emerging from African-American neighborhoods worthy of being designated “news” were stories of crime, and the most “newsworthy” of those stories involved white victims. And yet, the white men who, for decades, dominated newsrooms were no more nefarious than any of the other fish swimming in the American, mid-twentieth-century cultural sea.
What the first amendment does allow for is the presence of people on the margins who may, given their own limited visions, see things differently enough to shift perceptions within ever widening circles. What it allows is honest self-examination by journalists acutely aware of their own limited viewpoints, with the most courageous among them struggling and sometimes succeeding in perceiving something they had not seen before, and broadcasting that fresh perception to their audience. “Objectivity” is a myth, but a constant commitment to intellectual honesty and sometimes painful self-examination is a professional standard worthy of constant effort.
What truly corrupts a perpetually evolving “free press” is the ability of the rich and powerful to use their money and privilege to suppress, intimidate and eliminate the voices of those with whom they disagree. That is why our laws and our courts have created such stringent burdens of proof for slander and libel.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center Board.