Tag Archives: press freedom

Fake News?

It’s disheartening to hear a president use “fake news” to dismiss the very best of American journalism.

It’s the President’s favorite theme.  If the phrase had a history prior to his administration, “fake news” has been reborn as the mantra of the Trump insurgency.

         A worrisome sign of  Trump’s legacy

Anyone who has been paying attention knows that the President uses the term to mean news coverage he does not find to his liking. When he took that famous escalator ride to the lobby of Trump Tower to announce his candidacy several years ago he must not have understood that his words and checkered business would be under intense scrutiny.

Trump’s frustration with the news media is hardly unique. Most presidents and many mayors and governors have gone through rocky relationships with the Fourth Estate.  At the same time, Americans understand that good journalism is sometimes going to make the powerful uncomfortable.  Witness the sentimental heroics displayed in films like The Post (2017), All the President’s Men (1976), Frost/Nixon (2008) and Good Night and Good Luck (2005).

A reasonable description of this moment in our national politics is that, indeed, the American leader is getting terrible press.  No doubt about it.  He and his administration are at the center of a cable news cycle intensely focused on miscues and misdeeds. Evidence of malfeasance is also the subject of most of the negative coverage in the legacy print news media, including the New York Times and Washington Post, and in public policy publications like The Atlantic, The New Republic and, increasingly, The New Yorker. If that were not bad enough for the West Wing, reports from conservative outlets are only marginally more positive, with the important exception of Fox News. The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard are far from positive.  In addition, important conservative journalists like Max Boot, George Will and Bill Kristol are not fans.  Even Tucker Carlson is wavering.

The term has become its own reality, obliterating distinctions between rigorous journalism and ill-considered rants.

Reality television and social media have proven to be bad models for the President. Anyone with a knowledge of American civil life will understand that “news” can take many forms and be shaped from a variety of perspectives.  Phoney journalism has a long history in supermarket tabloids and reality shows not known for treating news gathering as a serious profession.  And, of course, internet sites and social media largely ignore the rigors of traditional reporting. Most websites do little more aggregate stories from other sources, while issuing polemics to like-minded partisans. Indeed, there’s enough fake news around for everybody to lament.

Even so, it is disheartening to see a president dismiss the very best of American journalism from our legacy media.  Among his followers, at least, this bogus indictment has the effect of undermining a cornerstone institution in American life. “Fake news” has become its own reality, obliterating distinctions between rigorous reporting and ill-considered rants. The phrase has also become a poison in the American body politic, slowly infecting every policy decision and utterance.

What is traditionally celebrated by a President now exists under a cloud of wild allegations.

It seems like Trump or his instructors at the University of Pennsylvania badly missed the mark many years ago. One wonders if a Wharton degree includes courses in American history and politics. How could he have missed the lessons of Jefferson, Franklin, Oliver Wendell Holmes and so many other defenders of the free press in an open society?  Why is the language of human rights and press freedom hardly visible even at the margins of his limited lexicon?

Some of us occasionally have to pinch ourselves to realize that we are witnessing the use of the nation’s highest office to persecute a core institution of civil society. Among other things, Trump’s relentless attacks mimic old Soviet habits of fueling distrust for any sources not under the thumb of the state. Rather than celebrating a core value of the great American experiment, this administration seems intent on discrediting it.

The Divider

Nothing stands out more in the rhetoric of Donald Trump than his apparent pleasure in pitting Americans against each other. 

Classic studies of the American Presidency always include detailed histories of the office’s rhetorical style. In the most visible office in the world form usually follows function.  Presidents have always been called upon to find common values and beliefs that transcend regional and party differences.  In the words of analyst Mary Stuckey, the nation’s leader is the “interpreter in chief.”  His (and someday her) job includes finding the common threads of the American experience, then celebrating them in statements and appearances.  Others in Congress may function as professional partisans. But the Presidency has usually found its natural buoyancy when a leader tries to speak for the entire nation. Even past Presidents swimming in private resentments usually managed to celebrate the American experience. Most have not strayed from their constitutional oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  That includes not just honoring the independence of the press and judiciary, but celebrating the transcendent principles of tolerance and inclusion laid out in the expansive amendments to the Constitution.

Or so we thought.

Nothing stands out more in the Trump administration than his seeming delight it pitting Americans against each other.  To be sure, leaders have been intense partisans. We know from the record that this was true of F.D.R., John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson.  Johnson is an interesting case. The former Senate Majority leader from Texas was an old ‘pol’ in the classic sense of the term. He learned about the uses of power from Richard Russell, an unreconstructed southerner. But he also understood how long-standing problems of race and poverty could be acted on in ways that would bring out the best in Americans. His televised address to Congress in 1965 supporting the Voting Rights Act remains an impressive demonstration of political courage.  In his slow drawl he reputed the racism of his mentor, embracing the promises enshrined in the nation’s founding documents.  Here are a few pieces of that address.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Voting Rights Act Speech

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a landmark piece of federal legislation in the United States that prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

"What happened in Selma is part of a larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America.  It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.  Their cause must be or cause too.  Because it’s not just Negroes, but really all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.    

And we shall overcome."

It was an electric moment. Johnson spoke to our aspirations rather than our fears.  The act that passed eventually opened up local politics, leading to more registered voters and many more African American office holders.

It’s hard to fathom the horrible fact that some news organizations must supply their own security at Trump events.

Trump’s instincts are much more personal and strategic.  He seeks to celebrate himself more than the diverse corners of American life.  He feeds long standing resentments centered on race, vulnerable new arrivals, Muslims and any number of corporations and sports leagues. Most shockingly, he regularly campaigns against a sacred principle of public life: the value of a free and vigorous press.  He attacks the single feature of American political life that has been most admired and duplicated in emerging societies. His  vile and dangerous claim that the press is “the enemy of the people” is stunningly unamerican.  And from a more legalistic perspective, some verbal attacks at rallies approach the definition of felonious “incitement to violence.”  It’s hard to fathom the horrible reality that at Trump events some news organizations use their own security people to protect their journalists.

What motivates a person who publicly loathes so many?  If governing requires dealing with large segments of society that one finds distasteful, what rewards and motivations can exist?

One explanation from a psychiatrist writing in the New York Times doesn’t include a mental disorder, but a simpler habit of mind. He wrote that Trump has “a personality that privileges destructiveness and revels in the destruction of others and their ideals, whether they be refugees seeking asylum or carefully constructed policies that recognize the danger of Russian aggression.”  He notes that the President is not a “broken man,” but one “fully in tact” who simply gains pleasure from wreaking havoc on basic presuppositions grounding both conservatives and liberals raised in certain protocols and traditions of governing. He’s an anomaly in politics, not to mention the hospitality industry.

Trump will someday pass from the scene.  The more troubling problem is the mounting evidence that too many Americans seem to share his desire to destroy the values of liberal democracy.