The Attacks On Our Free Press May Be Having Much Greater Impact Than We Care To Admit
One of the hallmarks of authoritarian, dictatorial regimes is the restriction on any overt criticism of the regime. It is part and parcel of the general control of free speech and the media employed by those regimes. This is especially true of comedy and satire that is directed at the dictatorship.
The Huffington Post detailed examples of comedians and satirists who have been viciously silenced by the dictatorial regimes they made fun of, including jail time for some. Each one of these incidents sends a clear message to rest of the population about what the limits of comedy and, by extension, free speech will be under the oppressive regimes.
Now the faux outrage of the Michelle Wolf/White House Correspondents Dinner is truly a tempest in a teapot. Far more disturbing than the argument of whether Wolf was overly rude or stingingly on target with her speech was the response of the White House Correspondents Association. Margaret Talev, president of the association, issued a statement saying, “Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people. Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.” Unfortunately, I think Talev seriously misunderstands the purpose of the press if she believes that its work should not divide people. Moreover, as a member of the fourth estate, Talev should be in the habit of defending free speech, especially at an event designed to pillory the elites of both parties.
Talev’s misunderstanding is hardly earth-shattering but it does speak to what happens to the press when pressured by authoritarians, namely the instinct for self-censorship. Today’s dictators prefer “managed media”, where the press is ostensibly free but largely constrained by its own self-censorship having seen that other outlets directly critical of the regime have been silenced either by the government or through financial pressure.
On Monday, Matt Schlapp, the head of the American Conservative Union, said “Just present the facts and let the American people if they think someone’s lying. Journalists shouldn’t be the one to say the President or his spokesperson is lying. What that does to 50 percent of the country is make them feel they are not credible to listen to.” When criticized about that statement, Schlapp doubled down, tweeting, “I stand by that statement. Lying implies motive. Just cover the facts no matter how ugly and let the voters decide motives and intent.”
This again is an attempt to seriously constrain the role of the free press. In fact, the press did grapple with the issue of motive and intent during the campaign and early on in the Trump administration. There were discussion about whether Trump was being “untrue”, “factually incorrect”, or other such euphemisms. But when Trump repeatedly and continually made the same false assertions after having been corrected multiple times, the press finally called the lie a lie. Schlapp, instead, prefers a self-censoring media that are purely stenographers for state propaganda. In reality, we already have too much of that.
Over at the Justice Department, Jeff Sessions recently issued a revised version of its internal manual meant as a guide for federal prosecutors and other DOJ lawyers. In that revised manual a whole section entitled “Need For Free Press And Public Trial” that had existed in the manual since 1998 was excised from this current version. The specific passage that was dropped reads, “Likewise, careful weight must be given in each case to the constitutional requirements of a free press and public trials as well as the right of the people in a constitutional democracy to have access to information about the conduct of law enforcement officers, prosecutors and courts, consistent with the individual rights of the accused. Further, recognition should be given to the needs of public safety, the apprehension of fugitives, and the rights of the public to be informed on matters that can affect enactment or enforcement of public laws or the development or change of public policy.” Again, this is hardly earth-shattering but it is indicative that the DOJ under Trump is certainly downgrading the importance of the constitutional requirements of a free press in its decisions.
Trump himself continually attacks the press and has since he began running for President. He has singled out news organizations, attacked specific individuals within those organizations, and threatened to use his executive powers to harass corporations that own news organizations Trump does not favor. Trump’s abusive rhetoric is now bleeding over into the political process at large. Today Marco Rubio responded to an article in Politico that highlighted his hypocrisy on the tax bill with a cheap shot that the journalist was an “intern”, which of course had no bearing on the details in the article.
The media is already under pressure from the multiple new sources of information brought on by our technological revolution. In addition, the spread of managed media propaganda outlets such as Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting are also encroaching on the concept of a free press. In addition, corporate ownership is also threatening the press, especially at the local level. Digital First Media (DFM), owned by hedge fund Alden Global Capital and owners of a variety of major local newspapers across the company, has consistently been cutting staff at those papers. In March, the firm laid off one-third of the newsroom staff at the Denver Post. All this cost-cutting has allowed DFM to earn $160 million in profits and a remarkable operating margin of 17% at the expense of actual local news coverage. Other smaller local newspapers, such as the Charleston Gazette-Mail, have recently declared bankruptcy. This reduction in local news coverage is especially disheartening as corporate interests already have undue influence over state and local governments.
One of the few positives of the Trump presidency has been the remarkable resilience of the press. Major news outlets like the NY Times, Washington Post, the three major TV news organizations, as well as numerous others, have done incredible reporting while refusing to be cowed by Trump’s aggressive attacks. Many have seen this as an indication that are institutions are holding. But a closer look shows that press coverage of local issues continues its steady erosion. As corporations like DFM abet that erosion, the void is being filled by propaganda outlets like Sinclair. Combine that with the attacks on what’s left of our free press, and the situation may be far more dire than we perceive.
Originally published at tidalsoundings.blogspot.com on May 2, 2018.