Free Press Is Vital to Democracy; So Is Calling out the Press
Opinion Piece: Free Press Is Vital to Democracy; So is Calling out the Press
A free press was considered so vital to our democracy that our founding fathers protected it in the First Amendment of the Constitution. It is necessary to inform the people, to shine a light on important events and issues, and, most importantly, to expose corruption. Without a free press, there can be no democracy.
But what happens when the free press is corrupt? What happens when the press abuses its power? What happens when the press itself threatens democracy?
We need the free press, but we also need to call out the press to keep journalists in check.
Yellow Journalism Is Not a New Problem
The Struggle to Bring Ethics to Journalism
Back in the 19th century, news publishers began to go wild with what we now call "fake news." From sensationalized headlines to blatantly false reporting, the press was starting to be more destructive than useful.
In the early 20th century, news publisher Joseph Pulitzer was so ashamed of his own unethical behavior that he began to clean up his act. Pulitzer became an inspiration and sparked the evolution of journalistic codes of ethics, which included principles such as fairness, impartiality, accuracy, truth, and accountability.
Human beings are inherently biased, and journalists are no exception, but ideally, a serious journalist will put such biases aside and report the news with integrity. Sadly, we keep falling short of those ideals even today.
"Journalism is a kind of profession, or craft, or racket, for people who never wanted to grow up and go out into the real world."— Harry Reasoner
Money and Power
The only thing free about the "free press" is that it's not controlled or restricted by government censorship. Cable news stations are not broadcasting 24 hours per day as a public service; they are making money—lots of it. Media is big business, and the news is just another commodity.
Let's face; no one tunes into the news, searches headlines, or buys a newspaper to hear that everything is fine. "Sensationalism sales, it is good for the ratings and it keeps the share holders happy. It becomes a cycle of catering to the lowest common denominator of the viewers," writes Gilbert Mercier in the News Junkie Post.
Making matters worse, only five companies own the majority of media outlets. Media concentration is a problem because it limits the viewpoints and opinions offered to the public. Small presses or independent journalists' voices are subsequently drowned out in the process.
With media concentration, billionaires in board rooms get to decide what narrative they prefer to push. Too many news outlets conflate their spin on the news with news itself. They've blurred the lines between editorial and journalism.
"Journalism could be described as turning one's enemies into money."— Craig Brown
For one of the best modern examples of the problem, look no further than CNN. Jeff Zucker, the network's president, said in an interview, "I think our air, as opposed to others’, is truly fair and balanced."
The claim is simply not true. Conservative watch group Project Veritas did an exposé on CNN that confirmed the network's bias, though it came as no real surprise to anyone who has ever watched CNN. One study found CNN's reporting on President Donald Trump to be negative 93% of the time.
In 2016, CNN's ratings began to fall as accusations of bias continued to challenge it. Instead of reassessing their editorial policies and reporting methods, CNN doubled down with anti-Trump rhetoric. Viewers grew weary of the alarmist reporting and repetition. Overall, Americans began to lose faith in the mainstream media. By the end of 2019, the network's ratings have continued to drop.
"I still believe that if your aim is to change the world, journalism is a more immediate short-term weapon.”— Tom Stoppard
Presidential Attacks on the Press
President Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked CNN and other liberal-leaning media outlets, popularizing the phrase "fake news." Some see Trump as a hero for calling out the mainstream media because he has put a spotlight on the problem.
Trump isn't wrong about the bias, or about the misleading reporting. He is wrong, though, because as president, it's not his place to do this. Trump's also wrong because his criteria for calling out media corruption is based on whether or not the coverage is critical of him or his presidency. His own bias is at the core of his misguided attempts to defend himself.
Trump is not the only president who has attacked the free press. His predecessor, former President Barack Obama, also launched a war against the media. Obama's attacks were quieter because he used sneakier tactics than Trump. Obama tried to block conservative media outlets from having access, sent his Justice Department to forcibly collect phone records from news sources like Fox News and the Associated Press, and even prosecuted reporters.
Whether done overtly in a public war of words, or by taking sinister behind-the-scenes action, no high-ranking public leader should undermine the free press while he's in office.
“A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.”— Albert Camus
The Free Press Should Be Called Out
Members of the press should not get a pass from abusing their power just because they happen to have a press pass. They are simply institutions, like the government or private corporations, that also need to be kept in check. They're not exempt from corruption.
News outlets are largely trying to give viewers what viewers seem to want—drama, excitement, mudslinging and confirmation bias. If we want the press to stop pushing their own narratives or preferred agendas on us, the onus is on us to call them out—all of them, not just the ones with which we disagree.
As long as humans report the news, it will never be completely unbiased. When so-called journalists misrepresent facts, lie by omission or push partisan agendas, we have to let them know they are crossing a line. We must hold them accountable. Anytime an institution—be it the government or the press—attempts to abuse its power and control citizens, we have to stand up to it, or our democracy is doomed.
© 2019 M S Beltran