I’ve always felt you can’t write about American politics in the 21st century without writing about the media. We live in a media age – how else to explain a reality-show star with no political experience (or expertise, it would seem) getting to within one giant step of the Oval Office? But earlier this month, it felt different. Never in modern times has the nation had two general election candidates who have pinned so much of their hopes on hostility, if not outright hatred, for the work of a free press.
For Donald Trump – his hopes of becoming president (if that’s even what he actually hopes for) fading – animosity toward the media hasn’t become just an element of the campaign, it’s raison d’être. He recently called journalists “the lowest form of life” and “disgusting” and went on a rant against the New York Times, threatening to revoke its press credentials, as he’s done with other news organizations.
At his rallies, which in recent days have again begun to resemble outtakes from “Triumph of the Will,” The Donald has urged his supporters to yell, taunt and give the one-fingered salute to reporters penned in like sitting ducks.
As is the case with so much stuff this summer, you can’t easily compare Hillary Clinton to Trump. But just because her campaign appearances aren’t straight out of Nuremberg doesn’t mean we should place a “Friend of the First Amendment” badge on the Democratic nominee.
No major candidate in the TV era – and that includes Trump – has gone to the lengths of Clinton in avoiding questions from reporters. Her strategy is based not on antagonizing the media, just dodging it – but that’s also a mark of disrespect for a free press. And a lot of her so-called liberal allies are eager to support that strategy, believing that the same press that Trump thinks is so out to get Trump is really instead out to get Clinton – so where’s the gain in being available and transparent?
But no one is more dazed and confused in this environment than the public. Citizens say they love journalism and want the facts, as long as it’s the fact that the other guy (or gal) is a bum. The irony is that in the so-called real world, facts have stopped mattering in the 2016 election.
The war on the role of a mainstream media that started with Spiro Agnew and the Powell Memo in the 1970s and that was perfected by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes – an effort that started on the political far right but has increasingly become mainstream – has accomplished its mission.
But don’t listen to me (because you don’t anyway). Listen to Charlie Sykes. He’s a longtime conservative radio host, quite popular in his home state of Wisconsin. A #NeverTrump conservative who has held true to that pledge, Sykes is considered one of the reasons for Trump’s surprising loss in the Wisconsin primary. Now, in an interview with Oliver Darcy of Business Insider, Sykes is bemoaning what the conservative media movement, which he’s been a part of, has wrought. Here’s an excerpt:
“We’ve basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers. There’s nobody. Let’s say that Donald Trump basically makes whatever you want to say, whatever claim he wants to make. And everybody knows it’s a falsehood. The big question of my audience, it is impossible for me to say that. ‘By the way, you know it’s false.’ And they’ll say, ‘Why? I saw it on Allen B. West.’ Or they’ll say, ‘I saw it on a Facebook page.’ And I’ll say, ‘The New York Times did a fact check.’ And they’ll say, Oh, that’s the New York Times. That’s (a lie).’ There’s nobody – you can’t go to anybody and say, ‘Look, here are the facts.’ And I have to say that’s one of the disorienting realities of this political year. You can be in the alternative media reality and there’s no way to break through it. And I swim upstream because if I don’t say these things from some of these websites, then suddenly I have sold out. Then they’ll ask what’s wrong with me for not repeating these stories that I know not to be true.”
Sykes goes on to tell Darcy that the right-wing media “created this monster” by destroying the credibility of the mainstream media. Here, even he may be too hard on himself and his erstwhile allies; certainly the media have also caused a lot of their own problems through the collapse of the news economy and the investigative reporting slots that it paid for, and through a feckless embrace of reporting based not on facts but on a phony definition of “balance.”
But what worries me about 2016 is that we’ve begun to move well past “the media are doing a lousy job” to, instead, a dangerous disregard for the First Amendment and the very basics of what makes for a free press.
A free press means free access and movement – not reporters corralled in holding pens or with rope tricks. It means that journalists must be free to do their jobs without bullying and harassment. It means making it easier to sue journalists or use the tools of government to harass the press is a non-starter. It means that voters should hold accountable any politician who refuses to face the press, just as they should with a candidate who doesn’t, say, release his tax returns.
And – and this is the part where maybe I’m daydreaming – it means actually respecting reporters who ask tough questions of your candidate, for doing their job.
Trump got a lot of attention for his ill-considered remark about “Second Amendment people.” I saw, in the ensuing media madness, that somebody made a joke about “First Amendment people” – but is that really such a joke?
We need an army of people who are just as alarmed at the eroding rights and stature of those who write and report as the “Second Amendment people” are about their notion the government is taking their guns. (Especially considering which one is actually happening.)
We don’t have a journalism association spending millions to elect and woo politicians as the National Rifle Association does for the Second Amendment. We just have people like you. It’s clear that America’s leaders won’t respect a free press – unless you demand it of them.
Will Bunch is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.