27 February 2017

'The enemy of the American people'

If the corporate media owe the government or the public nothing as a matter of law, it's also true that the government owes the media nothing except what's provided for in the First Amendment. They can't act in a way courts might see as violating freedom of the press, but that doesn't mean they have to give the press everything they want or claim entitlement to. The Constitution was not violated when the President's press secretary excluded a handful of news outlets from what's absurdly called a "gaggle" a few days ago, but the Trump administration had to know that theirs wasn't a smart move. It earned them rebukes from some conservative news outlets, and it only seemed to reconfirm the hysterical suspicion of many in the news business that Trump's object is Russian-style intimidation or outright suppression of dissident media. Trump himself provides regular fuel for that fire by taking an adversarial stance toward the "fake news" establishment that seems inappropriate to many observers, regardless of their views on Trump or the media, however well it plays with his more uncivil supporters. His recent charge that some media outlets, by purveying what he calls fake news, are "enemies of the American people" will only earn him more enmity and suspicious scrutiny.

It's a strange, dark moment when we look to George W. Bush for wisdom, but that moment came this morning, when the former President went on NBC to affirm the importance of free and independent media. Dubya had a thicker skin as President than Trump has, but  I think you can make the case that, despite all the mockery of Bush's intellect or even his facial features, the news media as a whole was less biased against him than they are against Trump. It's not really a tough case; simply look at how the mainstream media rejected the "truther" movement, which made the most damning charges against Dubya, compared to their indulgence of many wild charges against Trump. Without defending or endorsing Trump, it's simply an objective (albeit impressionistic) observation that the news media has never been so biased against a President since the days of FDR, when nearly every major paper in the country leaned Republican, or else turned against Roosevelt shortly after the New Deal got underway. The situation is probably even more unbalanced now, with so many conservative columnists still keeping their distance from Trump. That makes it appear as if there's an unprecedented consensus against the current President, who appears to many different people, for many different reasons, as an imminent threat to the American way of life. In part that's because Donald Trump really is the first 21st century President, the first truly to be shaped, despite his age -- he's actually a few weeks older than Dubya -- by the habits of social media.

The most threatening of those habits to the media establishment is Trump's insistence on talking back to them. If their fear is that he's demanding some kind of unseemly deference from them, they also expect a kind of deference from him, if not from the entire political establishment. They're used to a political order where the politicians act, the commentators comment, and the last word is, in effect, "Well, this is a free country, and that's your opinion." Trump doesn't leave it there. For him, the comment thread on an article is always open and you'd better not flag him. He constantly challenges the credibility of reporting and the integrity of opinion. What disturbs the media establishment, I think, is that Trump doesn't let things go once everyone has had their say, but seems determined either to change opinions or shut them up. On his own terms, he's simply demanding a fair shake and press coverage free from what he perceives as bias against him. For all that he plays the superpatriot he doesn't seem to comprehend how this goes against the American grain, at least at some level. For liberals and conservatives alike -- or, to be more specific, for conservatism as an outgrowth of liberal democracy -- dissent is the health of the state. Many people can't tell for certain if they're free unless they can bitch about the government and its leaders and get away with it. Eventually suspicion becomes an end (if not a good) unto itself, making it impossible for skeptics (or especially ideologues) to give each newly elected leader the "chance" he demands and arguably deserves. This testing will only grow more persistent (or more resistant to reason) once a leader is perceived as a threat to civil liberty, and Trump will only keep the loop going by pushing back constantly against criticism or suspicion of his motives. Perhaps the consensus that allows Americans to agree to disagree has at last been lost. Don't forget, however -- Trump hasn't -- that not all Americans think this way. Appeals for unity, calls for all people to pull together regardless of differences, don't carry the whiff of fascism to all senses. They may see partisan or ideological skepticism, taken to new levels in response to Trump, as an abuse of the First Amendment that requires some sort of check that the Constitution doesn't provide. That's why you hear talk of boycotts, not only against the news media but all media (including entertainment) deemed disrespectful to the President and by extension to his voters. That talk, of course, will only guarantee further reactions against "fascist" tendencies among the unwashed masses in our current environment of mutually resented mutual disrespect. Neither the President nor the media is doing much to calm the reactionary mood, now that both sides seem agreed that anger is the order of the day. Whether civil liberties can survive long under those conditions is debatable, but good luck trying to have a civil debate on that subject now.

1 comment:

Unknown said...