A free and independent press is rightly considered essential to a healthy democracy. Ideally, the press functions like Socrates’ gadfly—it serves to reproach the state and stir it to life. Also like Socrates, the press is supposed to question those who hold power and reveal what lies they might tell. Socrates was, of course, put to death for troubling the elites of Athens. While some countries do the same with their journalists, a different approach has been taken in the United States. To be specific, there has been a concerted effort to erode and degrade the free press.
While the myth of the noble press is just that, the United States has long had a tradition of journalistic ethics and there have been times when journalists were trusted and respected. Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite are two examples of such trusted and well-respected journalists. Since their time, trust in the media has eroded dramatically.
Some of this erosion is self-inflicted. While the news is supposed to be objective, there has been an ever increasing blend of opinion and fact as well as clear partisan bias on the part of some major news agencies. Fox News, for example, serves to openly advance a right leaning political agenda and shows shamefully little concern for objective journalism. Its counterpart on the left, MSNBC, serves to advance its own agenda. Such partisanship serves to rightly erode trust in these networks, although this erosion tends to be one sided. That is, partisans often put great trust in their own network while dismissing the rival network. Critics of the media can make an argument by example through piling up example after example of bias and untrue claims on the part of specific networks and it is natural for the distrust to spread broadly. Except, of course, to news sources that feed and fatten one’s own beliefs. A rather useful exercise for people would be to apply the same level of skepticism and criticism they apply to the claims by news sources they like as to those made by the news sources they dislike. If, for example, those who favor Fox News greeted its claims with the same skepticism they apply to the media of the left, they would become much better critical thinkers and be closer to the truth.
While the news has always been a business, it is now primarily a business that needs to make money. This has had an eroding effect in many ways. One impact is that budget cuts have reduced real investigative journalism down to a mere skeleton. This means that many things remain in the shadows and that the new agencies have to rely on being given the news from sources that are often biased. Another impact is that the news has to attract viewership in order to get advertising. This means that the news has to appeal to the audience and avoid conflicts with the advertisers. This serves to bias the news. The public plays a clear role in this erosion by preferring a certain sort of “news” over actual serious journalism. We can help solve this problem by supporting serious journalism and rewarding news sources that do real reporting.
Much of the erosion of journalism comes from the outside and is due to concerted war on the press and truth. As a matter of historical fact, this attack has come from the political right. The modern efforts to create distrust of the media by claiming it has a liberal bias goes back at least to the Nixon administration and continues to this day. Sarah Palin seems to have come up with the mocking label of “lamestream media” as part of her attacks on the media for having the temerity to report things that she actually said and to indicate when she said things that were not true. It is not surprising that she has defended Donald Trump from the media’s efforts to inform the public when Trump says things that are untrue. Given this long history of fighting the press, it is not surprising that the right has developed a set of weapons for battling the press.
One approach, exemplified by Sarah Palin’s “lamestream media” approach is to simply engage in ad homimens and the genetic fallacy. In the case of ad hominems, individual journalists are attacked and this is taken as refuting their criticisms. Such attacks, obviously, do nothing to refute the claims made by journalists (or anyone). In the case of the genetic fallacy, the tactic is to simply attack the media in general for an alleged bias and concluding, fallaciously, that the claims made have been thus refuted. This is not to say that there cannot be legitimate challenges to credibility, but this is rather a different matter from what is actually done. For example, someone spinning for Trump might simply say the media is liberally biased and favors Hillary and thus they are wrong when they claim that Trump seems to have suggested someone assassinate Hillary Clinton. While it would be reasonable to consider the possibility of bias, merely bashing the media does nothing to disprove specific claims.
Another standard tactic is to claim that the media never criticizes liberals—that is, the media is unfair. For example, when Trump is called out for saying untrue things or criticized for claiming that Obama founded Isis, his defenders rush to claim that the media does not criticize Hillary for her remarks or point out when she is lying. While an appeal for fair play is legitimate, even such an appeal does not serve to refute the criticisms or prove that what Trump said is true. There is also the fact that the press does criticize the left and does call out Hillary when she says untrue things. Politifact has a page devoted to Trump, but also one for Hillary Clinton. While Hillary does say untrue things, she gets accused of this less than Trump on the very reasonable grounds that he says far more untrue things. To use an analogy, to cry foul regarding Trump’s treatment would be like a student who cheats relentlessly in class complaining that another student, who cheats far less, does not get in as much trouble. The obvious reply is that if one cheats more, one gets in more trouble. If one says more untrue things, then one gets called on it more.
Not surprisingly, those who loath Hillary or like Trump with make the claim that fact checkers like Politifact are biased because they are part of the liberal media. This creates a rather serious problem: any source used to show that the “liberal media” has the facts right will be dismissed as being part of the liberal media. Likewise, any support for criticisms made by this “liberal media” will also be rejected by claiming the sources is also part of the liberal media. Bizarrely, even when there is unedited video evidence of, for example, something Trump said this defense will still be used. While presented as satire by Andy Borowitz (clearly a minion of the liberal media), the fact is that Trump regards the media as unfair because it actually reports what he actually says.
While the erosion of the media yields short term advantages for specific politicians, the long term consequences for the United States are dire. One impact of the corrosion of truth is that politicians are ever more able to operate free of facts and criticism—thus making politics almost entirely a matter of feelings unanchored in reality. Since reality always has its way eventually, this is disastrous.
What is being done to the media can be seen as analogous to the poisoning of the village watchdogs by a villager who wishes to engage in some sneaky misdeeds at night and needs the dogs to be silent. While this initially works out well for the poisoner, the village will be left unguarded. Likewise, poisoning the press will allow very bad people to slip by and do very bad things to the public. While, for example, Trump’s spinning minions might see the advantage in attacking the press for the short term advantage of their candidate, they also clear a path for whatever else wishes to avoid the light of truth. Those on the left who go after the media also deserve criticism to the degree they contribute to the erosion. The spurning of truth is thus something we should be very worried about. Merlin, in Excalibur, put it very well: “when a man lies, he murders some part of the world.” And without a healthy press, people will get away with murder.