We’re hearing solemn pronouncements from prominent journalists that the freedom of the press is under siege. I’m not concerned – yet – because all I’m seeing so far is mutual sniping between a partisan press and a new administration responding in kind.
I can’t blame journalists for getting upset. It must hurt when the President says something like: “Nothing can now be believed which is to be seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.”
No, President Trump didn’t say that. (It’s more than 140 characters, after all.) The quotation is from Thomas Jefferson but the idea is the same: fake news. Presidents fought bitterly with the press for the first half of our existence as a republic.
What’s happening today is that the news media have returned to their partisan roots after roughly a century of attempted objectivity. Trust in the media has been diminishing steadily as Internet media outlets have proliferated and traditional news media have become politicized, and the election of Donald Trump brought this to a head.
When journalists announce that they are not going to “normalize” the president by covering him objectively, they forfeit any claim to the respect the media enjoyed when Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America.
Yet the media folks want to have it both ways. They’re hyperventilating because the President is calling them out as the opposition party they’ve declared themselves to be. It’s ironic (and a little sad) to see poor old Dan Rather stumbling out of retirement to preach about journalistic integrity in the hope that people have forgotten the fake news story that ended his career.
So far, the presidential assault on the media has been limited mostly to verbal insults and mean tweets. The only governmental action to date has been to invite more reporters to White House press briefings and pay less attention to previously favored media like the New York Times and CNN. This is not a First Amendment issue: There is no constitutional right to be called upon at a news conference or included in a press pool.
Freedom of the press will be a concern if the Trump administration blocks access to public information or uses government authority against journalists. If federal agencies refuse to honor Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for public records, that’s a problem. It’s also a First Amendment issue if the government launches criminal investigations against reporters for publishing information from whistleblowers. This bears watching as the new administration settles in.
Ironically, we did not hear sanctimonious speeches at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner when the Obama administration denied 77 percent of FOIA requests, spied on reporters and named one journalist as an unindicted co-conspirator.
Another indicator of press freedom is the degree to which the President and key officials are accessible for media interviews. President Obama gave many interviews but often dodged serious news outlets in favor of friendly entertainment shows and online niche publications. The chatterbox currently in the White House is on track to surpass that record and appears willing be interviewed by anyone, though he may insult them in the process.
Much as I mourn the end of objective journalism, it’s refreshing to see an oppositional press after eight years of lapdog passivity. This administration will be the most transparent in history whether the President likes it or not. We can count on the news media to expose nine out of every five potential presidential scandals.