Politics & Policy

The Press Is Still Free — And Still Way Too Sloppy

Reporters in the White House briefing room, February 27, 2017. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Shrieking ‘fascist!’ at every Trump tweet only makes reporters look lazy. To hold him accountable, they need facts and arguments.

If you believe the reports, President Donald Trump and his administration have spent the last month waging a brutal “war on the First Amendment” by ceaselessly lambasting the media without cause. But as usual, the media’s flair for the dramatic overstates the scale of the threat. Though Trump’s rhetorical attacks are unproductive and unnecessary, to suggest that he is a practical danger to the freedom of the press misunderstands the nature of the American media’s responsibility as a check on government power.

There is some merit to the contention that Trump has continuously behaved in an unpresidential fashion toward the media; the president shouldn’t routinely make the press a punching bag or refer to “the fake news media” as the “enemy of the American people.” For White House press secretary Sean Spicer to forbid particular outlets — those that have been especially critical of Trump — from entering a press gaggle in his office last week was both politically foolish and morally wrong, even though the press pool attended and full audio of the event was made available to reporters. What’s more, the Trump administration’s repeated critiques of particular outlets or stories often appear to be motivated by a distaste for certain depictions of the president or his policies rather than by substantive, factual disputes.

Nevertheless, there is a material difference between the uncouth and the unconstitutional, and the escalating “war on the media” rhetoric — expressed most recently at Vox and The Atlantic and, of course, in the consistent griping of journalists on Twitter — is a classic example of the press’s turning a sideshow into the headline attraction. Despite journalists’ heated rhetoric, it is possible for Trump’s behavior to be both undesirable and not existentially threatening.

Indeed, much of the media’s fury toward Trump began during the GOP primary and continued throughout his unorthodox campaign. Evidently, many outlets were frustrated by the fact that he had found a way to harness the power of Twitter and execute an end run around their usual mediating role. But the press has taken the wrong lessons from the campaigning days.

Journalists are going hoarse shrieking about Trump’s “unprecedented” violations of various constitutional rights — including his supposedly authoritarian desire to silence the press entirely. But Trump’s attacks should instead provide the perfect occasion for reporters to redouble their efforts to produce careful, honest work against which no legitimate criticisms can be levied. To do this, reporters would have to keep their personal biases from seeping into the way they choose their angles, sources, and quotes. Of course, it is wrong for Trump to classify as “fake” any information he happens to dislike. Rather than call him a fascist, though, the press should use facts to explain why his assertions are incorrect.

This is not to say that credible threats to the First Amendment are acceptable; nor should we be blasé about anything resembling such threats. Even an atrocious or completely incompetent press has the unambiguous constitutional guarantee of independence. But that constitutional protection doesn’t absolve today’s press of all responsibility to perform its duties properly.

Trump’s attacks should inspire reporters to redouble their efforts to produce careful, honest work.

Our press is often considered a fourth branch of government because of its ability to inform the people and check government power; to continue in this vein, it must remain free and independent. But that freedom doesn’t mean that all outlets are equally credible. It doesn’t excuse slipshod work or obviously malicious bias. If anything, it means we must hold the media to an even higher standard. Constitutional protection doesn’t legitimize any absurdity journalists wish to utter, nor does it protect that absurdity from criticism — from the president or anyone else.

Which is to say that members of the media can’t produce as much sloppy work as they did during the last election cycle and then get upset when they lose credibility in the eyes of the public. The press enjoys the same constitutional protection that all free speakers do, but it squanders its valuable opportunity to check the executive branch — and the rest of the government — when it chooses not to exercise that influence prudently and correctly.

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