A look at current American culture, the relationship between the media, the public, and ‘master manipulators’ in our new administration
By Karen Hendricks
So, why do people choose the media as a profession?
It’s a passion for writing and communicating, a love of words whether written or spoken, the thrill of discovering a great story, a sense of honor while being entrusted to tell those stories, shining a light on injustices or wrongs, a way to connect people with vital or interesting information, providing a platform for voices that might otherwise go unheard, and much more. A lot of us are “word nerds.” Simply put, we have the gift of communicating. Explaining, assessing situations, hearing both sides (or more) of a story, and presenting the facts as we’ve gathered them to inform the public; along with quotes/soundbites of those involved to add detail, emotion, and credibility.
For the vast majority of us, it’s certainly not for the money.
And it’s certainly not to be bashed by the American public; ridiculed or threatened by government officials. Yes, we the media should be held to high standards, but not viciously attacked.
Thankfully the U.S. Constitution guarantees us, the American public, the right to free speech as well as the right to a free press (media).
According to the National Constitution Center’s website, the First Amendment “guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition. It forbids Congress from both promoting one religion over others and also restricting an individual’s religious practices. It guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely. It also guarantees the right of citizens to assemble peaceably and to petition their government.”
Here is the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The press (media) functions as a “fourth estate,” in addition to the three branches of government with checks and balances, by monitoring and holding government accountable in order to inform the American people. The media’s role is to ask the tough questions, be persistent, curious, skeptical, with access to public officials. It’s an integral part of our democracy.
The dangerous aspect of “the media” today, is that we are seeing so-called media outlets on the far right and far left sides of the political spectrum not adhereing to sound journalistic principles. And there is an element of the population that’s buying their brand of “news.”
Over the past week, there have been numerous troubling news stories focused on strained relations between the new administration and the media: numerous false statements made by President Trump and/or his staff to the press, gag orders issued to several government agencies (EPA, NPS, Ag), and perhaps the most chilling story—chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon’s statements labeling the media as “the opposition party.”
How does the First Amendment support the media as part of our democracy?
According to Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute:
“Several Court holdings do firmly point to the conclusion that the press clause does not confer on the press the power to compel government to furnish information or to give the press access to information that the public generally does not have. Nor in many respects is the press entitled to treatment different in kind than the treatment any other member of the public may be subjected to. “Generally applicable laws do not offend the First Amendment simply because their enforcement against the press has incidental effects.” Yet, it does seem clear that to some extent the press, because of the role it plays in keeping the public informed and in the dissemination of news and information, is entitled to particular if not special deference that others are not similarly entitled to, that its role constitutionally entitles it to governmental “sensitivity,” to use Justice Stewart’s word. What difference such[p.1028]a recognized “sensitivity” might make in deciding cases is difficult to say.”
There have been three landmark Supreme Court cases that have upheld the media’s right to disseminate information including The New York Times v. United States in 1971 which allowed the publication of the Pentagon Papers.
Our President would have us believe that the term “main stream media” (which some far-right websites refer to as MSM) is derogatory. Many credible news sources cite the President making this reference when he is actually trying to discredit their reports, is upset with their coverage, and/or is threatening them.
When he says he’s “declaring war on the media,” what kind of power does he really have? According to an article in Newsweek, the Constitution and Supreme Court rulings will ensure the media’s role continues in our democracy. However, with a vacancy and two elderly members on the Supreme Court, some experts are worried. According to the article:
“What now is frightening—for a free press and other freedoms we hold dear—is that the president is positioned to create a court that can interpret the Constitution in ways that undermine our liberty—even those that we thought to be inviolable,” writes Hatcher. (Andrea Hatcher, associate professor and chair of the department of politics at the University of the South)
How did we get to this point?
The media: Yes, there are issues with the media, its coverage, its bias in some cases. Many journalist friends have expressed opinions on social media over the past few days with which I agree: that media organizations need to get “back to basics” by enforcing the hallmarks of good journalism–researching, writing, presenting all sides of an issue, striving to be non-biased, and fact-checking. There are other issues such as corporate ownership. Interesting sidenote: During the election process, a study by NPR actually found that the media was more than favorable to Trump, actually biased TOWARDS him (all sources, including this one, cited below).
The public: It is shocking how many Americans, as “consumers” of news, do not know the difference between non-news sources (whether you classify them as fake news, opinion-based blogs, or otherwise) and legitimate news sources containing all the hallmarks of good journalism. I hate to call people uneducated. But I think we truly need to educate American consumers as to their choices in consuming news just as we educate them on their choices at the grocery store. If you only consume junk food, guess what happens to you physically? Similarly, if you are feeding your brain only with junk news… you are not mentally grounded in reality. Some Americans seem conditioned to only seek out “fake news” which is often “opinion reporting” with which they agree, further perpetuating rumors, half-truths, and lies.
The government: During the campaign, there were warning signs that media relations with a Trump presidency would be difficult. Trump often taunted the media during his campaign rallies, inciting crowds to jeer at reporters. He labeled various outlets of the “mainstream media” as “fake news,” further straining relations and further confusing the public, while inciting his loyal supporters against the media. Just this morning, Nicole Wallace of NBC News summed up the new administration’s first week in office as “chaos rules at the White House.’ During the week, there were numerous skirmishes between the administration and the press. For example, when David Muir of ABC News pressed the President on why he is fixated on inauguration crowd size, the President attacked him personally:
“No, I think you’re demeaning by talking the way you’re talking. I think you’re demeaning. And that’s why I think a lot of people turned on you and turned on a lot of other people. And that’s why you have a 17 percent approval rating, which is pretty bad.” Muir, unflappable, continued pressing other topics as the interview continued.
During the week, his administration, specifically chief White House strategist Stephen Bannon formerly of Breitbart News, further eroded the public’s perception and confidence in the media. To quote the New York Times:
Mr. Bannon is one of the strongest forces in an administration with competing power centers. A savvy manipulator of the press, and a proud provocateur, he was among the few advisers in Mr. Trump’s circle who were said to have urged Sean Spicer, the new press secretary, to give a confrontational, emotional statement to a shocked West Wing briefing room on Saturday, when the White House disputed news reports about the size of the inauguration crowd.
This evolved, after a report in the New York Times:
“President Trump used his first full day in office on Saturday to unleash a remarkably bitter attack on the news media, falsely accusing journalists of both inventing a rift between him and intelligence agencies and deliberately understating the size of his inauguration crowd.”
Going back to a New York Times report in November, a chronicle of Bannon’s statements includes:
“‘Let the grassroots turn on the hate because that’s the ONLY thing that will make them do their duty,’ he wrote about Republican leaders in a 2014 email exchange with a Breitbart News editor. ”
Aside: Isn’t it ironic that the very law that guarantees us a free press also allows far-right and far-left “fake news” websites to also function, spreading rumor and hate, and undermining true media outlets?
Do we want our nation to be based upon a culture of hate, distrust, and threats to free speech?
Where do we go from here?
It’s up to each one of us to be on guard and watchful—watchful of the media, so that we not only make good sound choices when it comes to our news consumption but holding the media accountable if we read/hear something that doesn’t represent sound journalistic principles; watchful of the government ensuring they are providing clear communications to the American people and the press as protected under the First Amendment; and watchful of each other, taking leadership roles in listening, talking, and trying to understand (I did not say accept—but understand) others’ points of view in an attempt to heal our nation.
According to an article by Poynter Institute quoting New York Times columnist Frank Rich, “American culture will continue to be exploited by master manipulators from either political party ‘if Americans don’t start to take it back.’”