17 October 2016
The Committee to Protect Journalists has taken the "unprecedented step" of denouncing a U.S. presidential candidate, Donald Trump, as a threat to freedom of the press. The CPJ statement accuses the Republican nominee of having "consistently betrayed First Amendment values." It cites many of his well-known tirades and threats against the media to show that Trump "has consistently demonstrated a contempt for the role of the press beyond offering publicity to him and advancing his interests." For a while I've wanted to ask the people who condemn media bias against Trump why exactly the media should be so hostile to someone who's bound to provide them with plenty of hot copy and clickbait should he be elected. Here, presumably, is a reason, but I imagine that for Trumpists this is a chicken and egg question. If the media is afraid of Trump, they might say, it's because they're afraid of getting what they deserve, whatever that might be. They may resent the lack of accountability the mass media appear to enjoy, and that Trump may intend to remedy, based on his threat to "open up our libel laws." The "mainstream" media is complicit, as far as they're concerned, in the great lie that Trump is something other than the good if not great man his acolytes believe him to be. They remain convinced that Trump is owed something by the media, though the legal basis of that obligation is unclear. Republicans long ago rejected the "equal time" principle or the Fairness Doctrine as threats to the integrity of talk radio and Fox News, so for them to say now that not merely Republicanism but Trumpism is entitled to a voice in the media, or even respect, is hypocritical, just as it would be hypocritical now for advocates of the Fairness Doctrine to say that Trump should expect nothing from the media. What, then, does Trump owe the media? Apart from respecting the First Amendment, who can say? He's within his rights to snub and insult them, I suppose, though that won't win him more favorable coverage. Leaving aside whatever he might do, it's not wrong to ask whether the media should be more accountable when they seem to be one of the great entrenched interests of the country. Since "the media" is a collection of private entities, the first recourse of an angry public is to punish them in the marketplace, though the most that can be done in this regard would be to listen only to the media entity Trump is widely expected to create, should he lose, to exploit his popularity and his fans' anger, and if anything the example of Fox News shows that biased media will only spawn more biased media. If Trump's people want the media to stop "lying," or stop being biased -- that is, stop being biased against them -- nothing short of the "authoritarian power" some want Trump to exercise may do the trick. I would take these people's objections more seriously if I wasn't convinced that they simply want to silence criticism of Trump, but they do raise questions that ought to be asked without partisanship, and in an ideal world can be answered the same way.