It is no great secret that the Trump administration has focused significant attention on attacking the news media. Repeatedly and publicly, Trump and his surrogates have critiqued news outlets, kept respected sources out of the White House, refused to appear on networks, and proclaimed with growing intensity the existence of “fake news”.
If the intent is to create distrust of the media, then Trump seems to be succeeding. A recent Pew Research poll found that 64% of Americans say fake news causes “a great deal of confusion.” Indeed, some of this confusion is attributable to news that is (paradoxical as it sounds) verifiably false. But, every new fake story that is promulgated threatens the credibility of all news sources—especially those sources at which the Trump administration has taken aim.
Journalists are not the only group Trump is targeting. When so many others groups—particularly those on the margins of society or those who already face institutional discrimination (such as immigrants or Muslims)—are under attack, why should we care about attacks on the media? Journalists are considered elites in the public eye—a claim which, at times, rings true. So, why does it matter when news outlets like the New York Times can’t get into the White House?
The key trouble here is that the free press ought to be a distinct political actor in democracies, which serves as an intermediary between the government and the governed. Historically, this has been a shared conception among many political theorists and popular writers. In his iconic Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated the role of newspapers in forming U.S. political culture. Tocqueville maintained that newspapers were vital to a democratic society, even positing that “hardly any democratic association can do without newspapers.” Tocqueville saw newspapers as a check on majoritarian domination. In his view, newspapers could mobilize specific interest groups as well, and thus were necessary to ensure the multiplicity of interests in the American republic. Accordingly, then, “the power of the newspaper press must therefore in crease [sic] as the social conditions of men become more equal.” Nowadays, at a time when political equality exceeds what Tocqueville could have dreamed of, newspapers serve as a vital check on executive power.
This idea of media as a check on the government also gained traction in England, where MP Edmund Burke posited the idea of the “Fourth Estate”—the media as a distinct political bloc. In a session of Parliament, Burke indicated the presence of the press as “a Fourth Estate more important” than the other three estates represented in Parliament. This notion of the press as an independent actor has endured, and indeed the term “Fourth Estate” is used contemporarily to refer to the press and/or media.
Whether or not you agree with its content, free press is vital. Critiquing the press for bringing legitimate concerns to the fore is censorship, a hallmark of authoritarianism. A critical news media is not a new problem exclusive to Donald Trump, either. There were numerous times when the Obama administration was checked by the press in ways that were undesirable by the Left—WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden’s data, documentary features on Obama-era actions in Yemen. For its part, the Obama administration was also rated very unfavorable on free press by the Committee to Protect Journalists for, among other things, aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers. However, Trump’s actions are more direct and more publicized. Trump and Spicer call out news sources as “fake news” in press conferences, an extremely public forum. Further, Trump takes to Twitter when news outlets paint him in a bad light pitting his public against the media and sowing the seeds of distrust that can lead to authoritarianism.
Recent events, as well, tell us that the importance of a free press is decidedly not a partisan issue. This past week, former President George W. Bush came out against Trump’s attacks on the media. In his interview on the Today Show, Bush emphasized the need for free press regardless of its leanings. Bush emphasized that the media is a direct check on the executive, saying: “We need an independent media to hold people like me to account.”
Let’s take a closer look at the outlets that are and are not being censored by the Trump administration. CNN was one of the earliest to draw the ire of Trump and Sean Spicer, largely for its discussion of the so-called Trump dossier alleging connections to Russia. Spicer immediately invoked the common allegation of fake news, indeed suggesting that this was a pattern for CNN: “We continue to be disgusted by CNN’s fake news reporting.” While admittedly the veracity of the dossier was somewhat in doubt, CNN has had—and continues to have—a reputation for politically neutral reporting. Similarly, when Buzzfeed News published the full text of the dossier, Trump admonished them for it, calling Buzzfeed “a failing piece of garbage”. Further, the Trump administration has excluded the New York Times from press briefings. While the New York Times does have a distinct leftist leaning, its journalistic pedigree is almost beyond reproach. Other organizations barred from that briefing included the aforementioned Buzzfeed News and CNN, the LA Times, Politico, the BBC, and Huffington Post. Finally, Breitbart,news, the alt-right publication to which Steve Bannon once belonged, still regularly attends press briefings. As a matter of fact, Sean Spicer even sat down with Breitbart for an exclusive Facebook Live Q&A.
We must admit that the Trump administration has drawn unprecedented levels of criticism from the press. However, this is not a justification for curtailing freedom of the press. The danger is simply too great. Imagine if Richard Nixon had the same attitude toward the press as Trump does now Imagine if the whole Watergate investigation was dismissed as “fake news”. In the 70’s, it was possible for two journalists to expose the truth and bring down a President who had violated freedoms. Now, however, one has to wonder: is that still possible today?
Above all, democracy is about balance. Democracy must balance the needs of the majority against the needs of minorities, the needs of the governed versus the necessary powers of the government, the balance of the three branches of government, and so on. Though not an official part of our democratic system, the free press nevertheless is critical to that balance. Disrupting the free press removes one of the most essential checks that the citizenry has on its government.