Politics & Policy

Republicans, Don’t Sacrifice Free Speech to Punish the Media

Monitors in the press room during the first presidential campaign debate, September 2016. (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
You can’t call yourself a supporter of the First Amendment if you would deny the rights it guarantees to those with whom you disagree.

By a margin of over two to one, Republicans support using the courts to shut down news media outlets for “biased or inaccurate” stories, according to a recent poll from The Economist and YouGov.

When asked if cracking down on the press in this manner would violate the First Amendment, a narrow majority of Republicans agreed that it does, seeming to create a contradiction. However, a further question gave them a chance to clear the air and reaffirm the primacy of principle over political expediency: “Which is more important to you?” it asked, “(A) Protecting freedom of the press, even if that means media outlets sometimes publish biased or inaccurate stories; (B) Punishing biased or inaccurate news media, even if that means limiting the freedom of the press; (C) Not sure.”

Shockingly, a full 47 percent of Republicans support “punishing biased or inaccurate news media, even if that means limiting the freedom of the press,” versus just 34 percent who support “protecting freedom of the press, even if that means media outlets sometimes publish biased or inaccurate stories.” By contrast, 59 percent of Democrats said they prioritize protecting the freedom of the press, dwarfing the 19 percent who see it the other way.

On this issue, the Democrats are right. Freedom of the press is included in the Bill of Rights for two reasons: It matters, and there is perpetually an illiberal temptation to extinguish it. Republican politicians will always call CNN and the New York Times “biased” and “inaccurate.” Democratic politicians will always say the same about Fox News and Breitbart.

Both sides are right, and it doesn’t matter: None of those organizations should be forcibly shuttered. That’s what happens in Turkey or Russia when a newspaper offends the ruling party. In America, if you think a media outlet is biased, your best recourse is to say so, convincing others with reason instead of blocking their access to information you don’t like. This way, individuals decide which outlets deserve their trust. The only other option, the one that is apparently favored by a plurality of Republicans, is for the state to make those decisions for all of us.

This would be incredibly dangerous, even under the best of circumstances. Who, after all, can agree on what is or is not “biased,” or what amount of bias can be tolerated? Republicans correctly complain, for example, that ostensibly neutral “fact-checkers” like Politifact are themselves biased and sometimes inaccurate. The same is true of judges and politicians. In fact, I remember when every right-wing talk-radio host would decry the “fairness doctrine,” which also sought to suppress speech under the guise of eliminating bias.

A free people could deliberate and vote without relying on the fist of the state to crush all sources of information that might mislead them.

In fact, giving the state the power to shut down media outlets for bias or inaccuracy is an admission of a lack of confidence in our ability to self-govern as a free people. A free people could deliberate and vote without relying on the fist of the state to crush all sources of information that might mislead them.

The proximate cause of the yearning for that fist among Republicans, it is only reasonable to assume, is President Trump’s strident criticism of the media. Trump seems to be obsessed with the media, constantly denouncing it on Twitter and elsewhere for crimes both real and imagined. He even called it an “enemy of the American people.” To some conservatives, this is such a joy to behold that it has almost become an acceptable substitute for tangible accomplishments.

This is a grave mistake. Though it may satisfy a human yearning, punishing one’s enemies should not be the purpose of our politics. Conservatives and Republicans have plenty of ideas to improve the country, and they have the power to implement them. From education to tax policy to abortion, we could make America more fair, more free, more prosperous, and more humane. But instead, Trump directs Republican power and attention at CNN and MSNBC.

Ignoring our principles and subordinating the First Amendment to the impulses of the moment, Republican voters, if the poll is in fact representative, seem to have let the desire to punish overwhelm them. This is both an effect and a cause of the “Trumpified” conservatism that some, including National Review’s own Jay Nordlinger, have warned us not to indulge.

Trump does not speak, you may have noticed, of freedom or tradition or principle. He has little time for imagined republics and principalities in which ought overshadows is. He prefers victory, even if it requires an untraditional and un-conservative approach. Forget principle: To win is now to be virtuous.

It is not hard to see the appeal of this ultimately ruinous mindset. It’s viscerally satisfying to punish one’s enemies, after all. But American conservatives would do well to remember Nietzsche’s dictum, and “Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful.” Though the policies we have to enact are more constructive than our impulse to punish the media for its bias, we risk becoming too free from the burden of principle to care.

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