A free press is an important pillar of a free society. In addition to reporting what is going on—who said and did what—the hard hitting investigative reporting of The Washington Post and other news outlet has exposed corruption and abuse of power from the Watergate scandal of Richard Nixon to the sexual misconduct of Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin, Al Franken, and Representative John Conyers to name a few (more on this later). Such scrutiny of the behavior of those in positions of power is a critical service that is vital to the preservation of the integrity of our government.
One way to undermine the role of our free press is to challenge its integrity—to create doubts about the honesty of news reports—to label news as “fake news.” I am not suggesting for a second that news reports are never wrong or that we should not scrutinize them with some care and skepticism, but if the public comes to believe only those news sources that repeat what they already believe, one of the most important institutions protecting our freedoms (the fourth estate) would be seriously weakened.
We know that Mr. Putin’s Russia has been actively undermining faith in Western institutions by their citizens. In the U.S. and Europe Russia has used social media to plant fake news with both the right and the left in order to fan social divisions. One element of this campaign has been to undermine confidence in news reporting in general.
According to Hedrick Smith, former New York Times Moscow Bureau Chief and author of the global best-seller, The Russians: “Putin has turned to cyber warfare, using his intelligence services and computer hackers rather than military force to disrupt the West – and we can expect more of that in the 2018 elections and beyond…. It’s kind of Putin’s revenge for the fact that we pushed the Russian bear back in the cave by moving the frontiers of NATO into the Baltic states—Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. And (Putin) sees us as being behind the overthrow of the pro-Russian president in the Ukraine. So he’s hitting back.” (Putin wants new cold war) Putin also needs external enemies—external distractions—to divert the attention of Russians from deficiencies at home.
As part of this attack on American institutions they have called the news media “the enemy of the American people,” and planted statements such as: “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it.” New York Times /2017/10/12/ And in a direct attack on the First Amendment, this: “Why Isn’t the Senate Intel Committee looking into the Fake News Networks in OUR country to see why so much of our news is just made up-FAKE!” Money CNN/2017/10/05/
If you didn’t catch it already, I played a little trick on you in the previous paragraph. Those of you who have been paying attention will have spotted that the above quotes attacking the American press and fake news were not Russian propaganda but from President Trump. He also said in a February White House press conference:
“I’m making this presentation directly to the American people with the media present … because many of our nation’s reporters and folks will not tell you the truth and will not treat the wonderful people of our country with the respect they deserve.
“Unfortunately, much of the media in Washington, D.C., along with New York, Los Angeles, in particular, speaks not for the people, but for the special interests and for those profiting off a very, very obviously broken system.
“The press has become so dishonest that if we don’t talk about it, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people, a tremendous disservice. We have to talk about it. We have to find out what’s going on because the press, honestly, is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.” (Trump: media out of control)
Why does Trump do this? Some think that Trump’s attempt to undermine confidence in the news media is part of a well thought out strategy to raise doubts about the veracity of news reports critical of him. It is all “fake news.” I am more inclined to think that he is simply unable to control his anger whenever his ever present and huge ego is bruised. He and his ego are more important than the health and well being of our country, as when he complained about a lack of gratitude for his helping get the release of three UCLA basketball players caught shoplifting in China. On November 15, Trump tweeted:
“Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!”
A few hours later at a press conference the three did just that, but the father of one of them, LaVar Ball, downplayed Trump’s role in his son’s release precipitating the following Presidential tweet:
“Now that the three basketball players are out of China and saved from years in jail, LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!”
Are you shocked or have you acclimated to the new normal? I leave it to you to decide whether Trump is reflecting his concern for the well being of our country or his ego. (Trump-college-basketball-players-helped-free-china-left-jail)
Undermining our faith in our institutions and in particular our news media is a serious matter. It is dangerous whether promoted by Russia or Trump. (Trump’s dangerous attacks on the press.) The press and its supporters, to their credit, are fighting back. (US-press-freedom-tracker-documenting-press-freedom-violations)
As David Ignatius put it: “Amid the slithering mess of problems that emerged in 2017, the one that bothers me most is that people don’t seem to know what’s true anymore. “Facts” this year got put in quotation marks.
“All the other political difficulties of the Donald Trump era are subsumed in this one. If we aren’t sure what’s true, how can we act to make things better? If we don’t know where we are on the map, how do we know which way to move? Democracy assumes a well-informed citizenry that argues about solutions — not about facts.” He suggests the reestablishment of newspaper ombudsmen and would “like to see [Google, Facebook, etc.] using machine learning to interrogate supposed facts to establish where they’ve been — how they first surfaced, and how they were passed from user to user.” (“Getting-back-to-facts/2017/11/23/”)
At the same time, the American press deserves some of the criticism it has received. The following article by Chris Wallace puts the case very well: Trump-is-assaulting-our-free-press-but-he-also-has-a-point The distinction between news and opinion is sometimes blurred.
Here are two quick examples: The-FCC-has-unveiled-its-plan-to-rollback-its-net-neutrality-rules. The Post article linked here provides a reasonably balanced report on those favoring and those opposing the FCC’s proposed return to more or less the legal situation prior to 2015. The problem, as is often the case, is that the article’s headline is not written by the article’s authors and the headline gives a totally misleading impression of what is proposed: “FCC plan would give Internet providers power to choose the sites customers see and use” However, the headline writer probably reflects the better disguised biases of the reporters (to their credit). My own blog on the subject from last May is far more balanced if I may say so myself: https://wcoats.blog/2017/05/17/net-neutrality/
The discussion now underway on Republican tax reform legislation provides another example of press bias. Every morning I read the Wall Street Journal followed by the Washington Post, which should provide a bit of balance. But I have found press reporting (editorials and opinion pieces are free to say whatever they want) on this subject sufficiently biased to provoke me to blog twice on it: https://wcoats.blog/2017/11/12/tax-reform-and-the-press/ https://wcoats.blog/2017/11/18/salt-more-press-nonsense-on-tax-reform/
And finally from my highly selective short list was the recent Post headline: Trump boosts Moore in Ala. Senate race despite sexual misconduct allegations (Trump-boosts-Moore-in-ala-senate-race-despite-sexual-misconduct-allegations) This is very interesting (and amazing) on several levels.
Trump does not indorse Moore in this article but speaks out against his opponent: “’We don’t need a liberal person in there, a Democrat,’ Trump said about Moore’s opponent, former federal prosecutor Doug Jones, who has led in some recent polls in the state.”
The WSJ version of the same story was titled: “Trump Signals Support for Roy Moore Over Democratic Opponent.” WSJ 11/22/2017 With regard to the multiple sexual misconduct claims against Mr. Moore, “Mr. Trump pointed to the candidate’s statements: ‘Look, he denies it… He totally denies it. He says it didn’t happen. And, you know, you have to listen to him also.’”
A few hours later this article was updated as follows: “Trump said, ‘He totally denies it.’ Previously, the White House said that Mr. Trump believed Mr. Moore should leave the race if the allegations proved to be true.”
From CNN news: “President Donald Trump on Tuesday defended embattled Alabama Republican Roy Moore, all but endorsing the Senate candidate who has been accused of sexual assault and child sex abuse. “He denies it. Look, he denies it,” Trump said of Moore. “If you look at all the things that have happened over the last 48 hours. He totally denies hit. He says it didn’t happen. And look, you have to look at him also.” But to repeat, Trump did not endorse Moore.
Trump’s tolerance of “questionable” behavior by Republican’s is not extended to Democrats. When he returned from Asia he tweeted on Nov 16 about a picture in which Al Franken is holding his hands above Leeann Tweeden’s breasts, while they were on a 2006 USO tour to entertain U.S. troops.
“The Al Frankenstien picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps?”
He continued in a second tweet, “And to think that just last week he was lecturing anyone who would listen about sexual harassment and respect for women.”
Trump seems to suggest that we should believe the denials of Republicans and investigate the denials of Democrats. He had wisely kept silent to that point about Moore’s pedophile charges, presumably not to remind the public of his own admitted sexual misdeeds (plus the large number of claims he has denied). Here is the full list: President Trump-and-accusations-of-sexual-misconduct-the-complete-list . The mystery is why when he consulted his advisor on such things (himself, of course) he decided to break silence on the subject—condemning Sen. Franken while giving Moore a pass. I suggest that he change advisors.
We have sadly and dangerously grown used to the routine lying of Trump and others. We live in a world of fake news. There have always been limits on our generally wide-ranging freedom of speech, however. Famously, we may not shout fire in a theater when we know there is none. The balance between the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and protection against willful defamation, for example, can be tricky. The following article provides a useful discussion of this balance in the context of the defamation case against Trump by one of his claimed sexual abuse victims, Summer Zervos, a contestant on Trump’s reality television show, “The Apprentice.” “She accused then-presidential candidate Trump of sexual harassment that purportedly occurred in 2007. Trump denied the allegations, and, in his characteristically understated style, tweeted that those allegations, and similar allegations made by other women, were “nonsense,” lies,” “phony” and “100 percent fabricated.” Zervos then claimed that Trump’s comments amounted to defamation.” (Trump’s attack on Summer Zervos blows hole first amendment) This might prove more damaging to Trump than the Russia investigation.