On June 5, the Pew Research Center released polling information in which 50% of respondents identified “made up news/information” as a very big problem facing the United States today. In addition, 68% said that “made up news/information” has undermined their confidence in government 54% said it has eroded Americans’ confidence in one another, and 51% said it had reduced their confidence in the nation’s political leaders.
A newly-published book written by Talk Radio host/Fox News personality Mark Levin heaps blame on an ‘unfree press’ for this bad situation. In reality, the nation’s free press continues to function remarkably effectively, despite an unrelenting assault from the Trump Administration and its allies. The problem is not one of journalism. It is one of perception from a slice of the nation’s citizens—largely its conservative movement—whose information literacy is increasingly insufficient for the Digital Age.
Like species moving along a path that leads to an evolutionary dead end, the broader American conservative movement (particularly the Republican Party) has embraced what biologists would call “selections” that damage its long-term viability. It has increasingly outsourced its information diet, and arguably much of its thinking, to low value information sources—Talk Radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Laura Ingraham, and others—who lack backgrounds in journalism, possess little or no public policy expertise, put partisan interests ahead of objective truth, and who appeal to audiences through a lowest-common-denominator combination of confirming pre-existing biases, blame-shifting and demonizing political opponents.
Guided by the thinking of those hosts, their audiences (of which Republicans are perhaps the best proxy) are increasingly unable to understand 21st century realities, much less adapt to its challenges and opportunities. They fear the future. They are mortified by the ongoing diversification of the nation’s population and even more terrified of immigration. They seek to turn back the clock to a past that never truly existed.
Perhaps the leading symptom of the gathering consequences of the path they have taken is their near-total embrace of personality—that of Donald Trump—over principle in pursuit of partisan power. Their thinking has mutated into a new faith based on appeals to ethnic identity, global disengagement, and amorphous populism where persuasion through the power of inclusive ideas once prevailed. The rise of this new faith has led to their mass abandonment of principles that were once central to the Republican Party and broader conservative movement: commitment to free markets (including free trade), recognition that the United States has a leading role to play in securing and sustaining a global order that favors human liberty, and unwavering commitment to the pursuit of the nation’s Founding Principles, including but not limited to the primacy of rule of law.
How does one know this is a problem for which a segment of the population is responsible and not the news media?
Polling data from Gallup shows that it is Republicans whose thinking has largely diverged from the rest of the population. Over the past three years, Gallup data has revealed a decoupling of trust in the mass media between Republicans and Independents (with Democrats continuing to exhibit high trust). From 2009 through 2015, the percentage of Republicans expressing trust in the mass media was broadly in line with that of Independents, However, beginning in 2016, a large and continuing gap has opened up. Over the past three years, the gap has averaged 20 percentage points. In effect, Republicans have followed their increasingly angry low value information sources into convicting the nation’s journalists and the profession of journalism.
What has happened is that this segment of the population has entered into a Faustian Bargain to gain power at the expense of truth. The Trump Administration is floundering on account of toxic mix of an amoral and illiberal leader, endemic corruption, and a growing body of policy failures. It is unfit to govern and undeserving of re-election.
In response, the “thinkers” of the American conservative movement have peddled alternate facts, manufactured conspiracy theories, and attacked those who dare challenge their false narrative with facts. The nation’s free press stands foremost among the institutions that continue to bring the facts to the nation’s people. Hence, the President with applause from his backers has condemned the press as “the enemy of the American people.”
The nation’s people should rally behind its free press. Where necessary, they can and should advocate improvements. However, they should resist poison pills disguised as calls for reform that are intended to destroy the press.
The collapse of the nation’s free press would pose an existential threat to the nation’s republican framework. In the trial of Thomas Paine in 1792, Thomas Erskine explained the fundamental importance of a free press. Even as his remarks were specific to England, they apply universally to any free society. Erskine asserted:
There would be an end of the liberty of Englishmen, if they could not write and speculate freely upon the principles of government. The freedom of the press…consists in this, that a man… may freely address to the universal reason of a whole nation, principles of government congenial with, or hostile to, the form of government under which he lives. He may canvass the forms of government in general, or he may discuss those of his own in particular; he make take them to pieces; he many scrutinize them with the greatest rigor; he may state what he thinks to be wrong in the original conception; he may trace the gradual progress of decay, or of corruption; he may point out the consequences; he may dwell on their enormity; he may warn the people of their fate; and, in all this, he is not the subject of a criminal prosecution.
In today’s parlance, “he” (meaning the press) is not the ‘enemy of the people.’ The claims of the Trump Administration and its allies are without foundation.
The U.S. news media has been condemned, because it has focused on the widespread corruption of the Trump Administration. It has highlighted the “decay” resulting from the Administration’s short-sighted global disengagement, expanding protectionism, harsh treatment of allies, and pervasive divisiveness. It has “scrutinized” the Trump Administration “with the greatest rigor” to push back against the sea of disinformation being produced by the White House. It has continued to bring the facts to the American people in keeping to its mission of informing them for their role as citizens.
Put simply, the press is continuing to fulfill the vital role envisioned for it by the nation’s Founders. For that, the nation’s people should be grateful.