A Free Press If You Fight For It
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
Political polarization in the United States today is probably as bad it has been since the Civil War. There is fundamental dislike of various parts and groups of the nation for the other. There is less and less political conversation and virtually no dialogue. Political conversation today consists largely of different perspectives being thrown at each other. This is manifested in Washington, in the Congress, between parties, and even at the state and local levels. It is also present at dinner tables and even in primary school classrooms. People have an inability to have an actual discussion and to agree to disagree or to see the legitimacy in an opposing position. There was a time that the topics which were forbidden at a formal dinner were sex and religion. Today, politics is even more likely to cause a major uproar.
Part of the problem undoubtedly has been created by the 24-hour news cycle, the explosion of social media, and the absence a public desire to think before speaking. Consider the fact that there was a time that responsible newspapers demanded that all of its reporters double or triple sourced their facts before going to press. Today, many papers—to say nothing of bloggers or media junkies—permit stories to reach the public with barely a signal corroborating source. The very concept of fake news evolved from a legitimate allegation that there was material appearing on television, radio, and newspapers that was not true or least not totally factual. The problem is that what was assumed to be factually questionable, morphed into charges against a paper or a network or a writer for being fake.
The danger in this reality is serious but also not new. William Randolph Hearst exploited his media empire for his own interests and his political views. Even today, certainly the print media—especially outside the U.S.– express a consistent political perspective both as to reportage as well as in editorial writing.
The challenge today is whether the media can survive financially unless they become shills for a political leader or point of view. It challenges the very bases upon which all media is based, with some always doing better than others.
Modern Presidents always have had complex relationships with the media. The Fourth Branch of Government has a job to do and different Presidents dealt with them differently. Nixon said the press was out to get him; Johnson banned some photographers from the White House because they photographed him from his bad side; F.D.R. toyed with the press every day when they came into the oval office; Eisenhower did not enjoy meeting the press at all; Kennedy mixed it up so much with the press that he and they truly enjoyed press conferences. The bottom line, however, always was that everyone recognized that the media had a job to do. Today, the media is given less respect and credibility than ever. Part of this problem is their own doing and the competition from all the forms of information with which the public is inundated.
There is an additional major hindrance that the media faces today at the national level; the President himself. Trump has consistently berated and attacked all the media except those who are his sycophants. This is an institutional attack which Trump has transformed into a national, personal, ad hominem attack against him. He has then sold this denigration of the media to his followers who have now joined him in disrespecting any form of the media which is critical of the President.
So far America still enjoys a free press, but the costs are becoming more and more alarming.