Here are three significant events that occurred involving the U.S. media over the last couple of days. First, Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain criticized President Trump’s treatment of the media, suggesting his criticisms threaten or undermine the country’s democracy. Then Trump announced the so-called “Fake News Awards” the GOP published for what he described as “the most corrupt & biased of the Mainstream Media.” Finally, the media reported on both these things and either implied the senators were wrong to make their comments (in the case of Fox News), or implied the president was wrong to make his (as CNN, Los Angeles Times and The New York Times did). Here’s an example from CNN:
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a frequent critic of President Donald Trump, took to the Senate floor Wednesday morning to rebuke the President for his repeated attacks on the truth as well as his colleagues for failing to be a check on Trump.Recap: Trump criticized the media. Senators criticized Trump’s criticisms. Trump released a list of “fake news awards” criticizing media outlets. The media implied Trump or the senators were wrong in their criticisms.
What gets lost in all this? A civilized discussion about freedom of expression and of the press — which may be the most important point.
It’s nothing new for presidents to criticize the media. Granted, none have in the way Trump does, and it’s disparaging for Trump call a media outlet “fake.” Yet in their criticism, the senators and some news outlets imply the press should have the freedom to report on the president without being questioned in the way Trump questions them. In other words, media outlets should have the right to criticize Trump as they see fit, but his ability to criticize them should be limited. Why would the press get special privileges, and not the president? Take a look at this part of Flake’s speech:
2017 was a year which saw the truth — objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than at any time in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government.And this excerpt from McCain’s op-ed:
We cannot afford to abdicate America’s longstanding role as the defender of human rights and democratic principles throughout the world. Without strong leadership in the White House, Congress must commit to protecting independent journalism, preserving an open and free media environment, and defending the fundamental right to freedom of opinion and expression.Both senators suggest Trump has crossed a line, and the bias in some of the media coverage supports this idea. This isn’t to condone some of the things Trump does or says, but has he in fact violated his right to free expression?
The U.S. Constitution doesn’t make special dispensations for First Amendment rights. In this sense, the press is seeking to limit the president’s same freedom that it’s saying it’s fighting for. How does that work? It doesn’t — it’s inconsistent.
Instead of focusing on limiting freedoms, the national debate could start to break from the recursive blame and evolve the issue by honing in on responsibility. Here’s one way to look at the current situation:
Trump monopolizes a lot of the news, because he’s the president and he’s unconventional. A good part of the media coverage focuses on aspects of his behavior that outlets deem negative. It might look as if his actions and criticisms are the problem, but that’s not entirely true. Most of what Trump does isn’t new — not the ad hominem attacks or derogatory comments like “shithole”— he’s been saying these things since before the election, yet the media and much of society act surprised with every new report. Is Trump solely to blame?
U.S. voters are responsible for electing him into office, and the media is responsible in that it directs and sways the public’s attention through the way it reports on the president. Lawmakers such as Flake and McCain are also responsible by implying First Amendment rights should be limited for some and not others.
No, sirs, we are all responsible: Trump, government, the media, society. And if we want to evolve issues like these, we should be examining how we all share responsibility in the freedoms the Constitution affords us.
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News