The state of the press is alarming. And many of the critiques of the media, echoing endlessly in the ears of the American people, are legitimate and necessary. The media is divided. Everyone exists in their own bubbles, opting to consume and share only news that confirms their ideological predispositions. Nearly all of election coverage was oriented towards the horserace framework as opposed to actual analysis of the issues and candidates. Fake news — rooted in little to no fact and aimed at mass deceit — runs rampant. Extremist sites are gaining popularity over legitimate news sources. The list goes on.
Each of these issues is complex, worth analyzing and worth fighting against. However, more alarming than even the most disturbing failures of the free press are the current administration’s attempts to undermine its very existence.
Throughout his 2016 presidential campaign and transition into office, President Trump has systematically painted the press as his primary enemy. The Trump administration attacked the “mainstream” media — a misnomer in its own right — with significantly more fervor than it did congressional Democrats and even historically hostile foreign adversaries. And the Trump administration’s first press conference, in which Press Secretary Sean Spicer incomprehensibly raved and rambled against the media for the sake of his boss’s ego, proved that this trend would continue post-inauguration.
President Trump ran against the press throughout 2016 and, as he refuses to shift away from campaign frameworks and rally towards actual governance, he continues to benefit from distrust of and distaste for the media. This past week, Trump sent out a survey to his supporters that is far from science, and aims only to reinforce hatred of the media. It also prompts the responder to donate to the “movement,” so technically it also had a fundraising goal. Entitled the “Mainstream Media Accountability Survey,” it poses the question: “Do you believe that the mainstream media has reported unfairly on our movement?” It is us versus them. They — the media — are stopping the movement. Only Trump is to be trusted.
His anti-free press actions reach beyond the smearing of the press, which promotes general distrust. Trump has also systematically blurred lines and definitions, creating his own doublespeak. He has co-opted the term “fake news,” a label once applied to objectively fabricated viral stories claiming, for instance, that the Pope endorsed Donald Trump or that the FBI agent investigating Hillary’s emails was murdered. The president now applies this term to any news he finds unflattering, setting a precedent that his entire administration and much of the Republican Party has begun to follow.
Trump claims CNN is fake news, as are NBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post. He has begun to label any news organization that does not have a pro-Trump tilt as fake news, blurring the American electorate’s understanding of a genuinely problematic phenomenon and utilizing it as a political tool. The next step is for President Trump to label Reuters and the Associated Press fake news too, if he has not already by time of this piece’s publication.
The media is not without its flaws. The most prominent of these may be the stark division of the media, in which partisan groups may be receiving completely separate and often contradictory sets of information. Hand wringing about this bifurcation of the media is not illegitimate. However, blind panic may be ahistorical and lacks perspective. Additionally, excessive grieving about the state of the press may distract from future attempts to restrict it. State and local papers throughout much of the 19th and early 20th centuries were initially associated with political parties, but a nonpartisan press eventually emerged, and it will again if the demand is present.
Most vital of all is to remember that the media’s flaws in no way justify President Trump’s purposeful moves to undermine their primary role as the safeguards of democracy. Do not buy into his narrative — there is good, earnest reporting going on across the world and nation, and it should be consumed, shared and discussed. Moreover, every authoritarian throughout history has expanded their control over the people by undermining and restricting free press, from Castro to Qaddafi to Putin. Giving in to the distrust of the press only benefits the tyrannical.
ARI GOLDFINE is a College sophomore and the vice president of Penn Dems.
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