We’re In for Four Years of Near-Daily Presidential Media Critiques
An exchange between CNN’s Jim Acosta and President Trump in yesterday’s press conference:
ACOSTA: But aren’t you – aren’t you concerned, sir, that you are undermining the people’s faith in the First Amendment, freedom of the press, the press in this country, when you call stories you don’t like “fake news”? Why not just say it’s a story I don’t like.
TRUMP: I do that.
ACOSTA: When you call it “fake news,” you’re undermining confidence in our news media (inaudible) important.
If I were on the receiving end of that question, I’d say: Freedom of speech and the press is only a freedom to speak and to publish things, not an entitlement to be deferred to or shown respect. We all have freedom of speech, and if I criticize you – which I should do to defend myself, especially when you are distorting things – I’m exercising my freedom of speech. And I am speaking or writing to the people just as you are speaking and writing to the people, and the idea of the First Amendment is that the people get to hear and read it all, and they get to think for themselves and talk and write to each other, and we’re all involved in figuring out what is true and what is right. You see, you in the professional mainstream press want to filter it all and serve the people what you say is the truth, all pre-digested and gooey. But the people don’t want that sickly fast-food truth anymore. You can keep serving it, or you can figure out how to serve up something better, but you don’t dominate the truth market anymore, and you shouldn’t. And your effort to invoke law – the First Amendment?! Are you kidding?!! – to force all the other speakers and writers to stand down and let you have your old monopoly back? That’s just plain ludicrous, and I’m embarrassed for you that you would try to palm off an interpretation of constitutional law that’s so blatantly bankrupt.
When the Media Gets It Wrong, Again and Again
As noted yesterday, the national political media is bedeviled by two problems entirely separate from the president of the United States bashing them. The first is how frequently they report rumors, half-truths, hoaxes and flat-out falsehoods, with minimal corrections and a growing sense that getting the story wrong just isn’t a big deal anymore. The second are figures of prominence and experts who, in the process of trying to explain complicated subjects, get facts really wrong – not just a wrong opinion or prediction, but just stuff they should know.
Look, I get it. You’re speaking extemporaneously, and your words come out muddier than you intended, leaving the wrong impression. Or you’re using Twitter, and the character limit forces a brevity that obscures rather than clarifies. With disturbing regularity, I get radio shows and occasionally television shows asking me to come on their programs and talk about subjects I haven’t written about and where my knowledge is deeply lacking. This isn’t because I’m so awesome, it’s because a producer is looking for a warm body.
But sometimes someone who really should know their subject — like, say, the former “law and justice correspondent for ABC News” – gets legal stuff wrong and you’re left wondering what’s going on.
In yesterday’s piece, I mentioned two of CNN anchor Chris Cuomo’s more infamous statements – his tweet “Hate speech is excluded from protection. Don’t just say you love the Constitution, read it,” and another tweet about the WikiLeaks revelations, “hacking is a felony. POSSESSING wiki stolen info could be construed as a crime. Media gets an exception.”
There was one other example I didn’t have room to mention. During an on-air argument with Alabama chief justice Roy Moore in February 2015, Cuomo contended, “Our rights do not come from God. That’s your faith, that’s my faith, but that’s not our country. Our laws come from collective agreement and compromise.”
We can argue his first sentence as a matter of theistic belief, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that the Declaration of Independence states that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Cuomo is correct that all of America’s laws are decided by human minds and written by human hands, but at the core of the American system of government is the concept that certain rights cannot be rescinded or repealed by any human leader or government because God (or whatever name you prefer) gave them to us. You don’t have to be a religious believer to conclude that because an authority higher than the government gave us those rights, no government has sufficient authority to abrogate them. Cuomo’s argument “our rights do not come from God” rejects this core concept of our system and limits on government power, and asserts that Constitutional rights are ultimately a reflection of social consensus and the will of the majority, which is precisely the concept that the Bill of Rights sought to dispel.
Another one of my favorite examples of a journalist getting it wrong on an epic scale was Fareed Zakaria’s 2009 Newsweek cover piece, “Everything You Know About Iran Is Wrong.”
Zakaria’s got the sterling resume – Yale, Harvard, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, adjunct professor at Columbia – and he wrote, in what must have been a heavily researched piece, that Iran’s regime might “be happy with a peaceful civilian [nuclear] program,” “Iranians aren’t suicidal.” “Iran isn’t a dictatorship,” and it has a culture of “considerable debate and dissent.” Newsweek readers no doubt concluded that hyperbolic media coverage had obscured the reality of Iran, which was a sophisticated, multifaceted, modern state that is not so scary or brutal after all.
A month after the Zakaria piece ran, the Iranian regime announced Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won reelection with 60 percent of the vote, a result that many Iranians concluded had to be fraudulent. The regime crushed the Green Revolution with brutal force, shooting women like Neda Agha-Soltan in the street.
Within a matter of months, President Obama announced “the United States, the United Kingdom, and France presented detailed evidence to the IAEA demonstrating that the Islamic Republic of Iran has been building a covert uranium enrichment facility near Qom for several years.”
So if you had previously seen Iran as a country dominated by a brutal, dangerously aggressive, nuclear-ambitious regime that already demonstrated a willingness to use children to clear minefields and embraced a philosophy of risk and sacrifice unthinkable to Western values . . . it turns out everything you knew about Iran wasn’t wrong. Everything Fareed Zakaria knew was wrong.
To Protect the Interests of Whom?
Here’s a section in the lead story of this week’s The Economist, about a new report from the National Academy of Sciences that “gives qualified support to research into gene-editing techniques.” See if the sentence that jumped out to me jumps out to you as well.
The first gene editing will eliminate genetic diseases in a way that now requires embryo selection — an advance many would applaud. Adults should be able to clone perfect copies of themselves, as an aspect of self-determination. But breeding babies with new traits and cloning other people raises questions of equality and of whether it is ever right to use other people’s tissues without their consent.
The questions will be legion. Should bereaved parents be able to clone a lost child? Or a widow her departed husband? Should the wealthy be able to pay for their children to be intelligent and diligent, if nobody else can afford to do so?
Commissions of experts will need to search for answers; and courts will need to apply the rules — to protect the interests of the unborn.
You saw it, right? “To protect the interests of the unborn.”
It’s a delightfully glaring phrase in light of today’s abortion-on-demand philosophy and law, a cultural consensus in some powerful corners of the country but deeply controversial within the country as a whole. That sentence prods us: if the unborn have interests . . . why wouldn’t they have rights, as well?
Back in the 1990s, polling indicated more than half of all Americans considered themselves “pro-choice” and about a third considered themselves “pro-life.” Those percentages are now roughly evenly split; in a few recent years the pro-life percentage has actually been higher. Considering the once-unimaginable potential of modern technology, I’d say that shift arrived just in time.
ADDENDA: In this week’s pop culture podcast: The Cult of Beyoncé and why politically outspoken music stars are slightly less annoying than politically outspoken movie and television stars; FX’s Legion and the use of time periods in storytelling; the characterization “cheats” in the latest 50 Shades movie; a preview of CPAC next week, and the “chick flicks” that no one is too macho to admit enjoying.