At every press event, Donald Trump criticizes the media and/or specific people/networks. Initially, he picked on the New York Times and CNN. Now, in the President’s mind, not only are almost all news sources fake, they are enemies of the American people. This has been a constant theme of his presidency.
Why these attacks?
A. The President wants to protect you from being duped. The President wants to make your life easier by steering you away from evil liars.
B. The President wants to protect himself from any possible examination or criticism. The President wants to discredit news sources so that, in case a source finds something he doesn’t want you to know about, you won’t believe the story.
The option you choose may be based on your opinion of the President (see my post about confirmation bias and fake news here.) I would love to believe that A is the correct choice. I fear that B is.
MISUSING THE DEFINITION OF “FAKE”
Fake means false. Didn’t happen. Reporting that a poll that says 32% of the people trust the media, is not fake if in fact such a poll existed. That some other poll might have different percentages does not mean that the first story was fake. CNN, ABC, NBC accurately reported the polls in the election. That the election turned out differently does not mean the stories were made up.
Not covering a story is not the same as lying. If in fact there were big crowds, the story may have been ignored and that may be evidence of bias, BUT BIASED DOES NOT MEAN FALSE. There is a huge difference between choosing one story over another and reporting something that never happened. Stifling the press because you don’t like what they report is part of what is sinister. There is a larger fear.
THE PROBLEM IS DIFFERENT THAN YOU THINK
Our first response as educators was to teach students how to sniff out fake news. We pointed out that some stories were totally false. Made up. Never happened. No truth. We wanted to give kids tools for figuring out which stories were fabricated. But teaching students how to find lies is the smaller of the two problems with “fake news.” I am worried that students will believe something that is false. I am terrified that students will not believe something that is true. As we emphasize that some small amount of stuff that is encountered is nonsense, we seriously risk creating cynics who believe nothing is true. One of the most important pieces of civil society is being undermined.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE PRESS
A little history. Within minutes of creating a new country, our Founding Fathers decided to make ten changes to the Constitution. The very first change they proposed?
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Amendment 1 protects freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. The Founders were worried that these freedoms, not specifically mentioned in the articles setting up the government, could be attacked. Before anything else, they wanted to guarantee these freedoms.
…the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable. James Madison
Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost. Thomas Jefferson
The Founding Fathers realized that a free and respected press would help hold government leaders accountable, publicize important issues, and educate citizens so they can make informed decisions. Attacking the press, then, is a very dicey proposition. If the press is demeaned, those three things don’t happen. Who will perform those functions? This is not a liberal or a conservative issue. Both ideologies agree that a free press is critical to a well-functioning democracy.
Yet if our right to a free and independent press is infringed, all other rights fall. Our ability to be informed and the free flow of information, regardless of how damaging it is to elected officials, is one of the most essential safeguards to our liberty. The fight for a free press is one that we absolutely cannot afford to lose. http://www.freedomworks.org/content/flashback-founders-necessity-free-press
The press, which is essential to the preservation of liberty, has also come under attack from the government. One of the principles that ensures a free press is that journalists are not required to reveal their sources. This is one way government whistleblowers can feel free to come forward and reveal information that is of public importance, such as governmental corruption and abuse, without fearing exposure. If journalists were required to reveal their sources, scandals involving government corruption and wrongdoing such as Watergate might never be brought to the attention of the media and, thus, the American people. https://www.rutherford.org/constitutional_corner/amendment_i_freedom_of_religion_speech_press_and_assembly
I am terrified of the President’s claim that all mainstream news sources are enemies of the people. When Trump supporters shouted “luegenpresse” at a rally, it was very disturbing. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/10/24/the-ugly-history-of-luegenpresse-a-nazi-slur-shouted-at-a-trump-rally/?utm_term=.761f5329fa1a For a sitting president to echo those sentiments is shocking.
DESTROYING FAITH IN A CRITICAL INSTITUTION
The non-stop barrage is having an effect. Distrust in the media is increasing. From Gallup analyst Art Swift:
Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32 percent saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/296003-poll-trust-in-media-at-all-time-low
The numbers are radically different based on party affiliation: 14% of Republicans, 30% of independents, and 51% of Democrats trust the media. According to an Emerson College poll, 91% of Republicans think the news media is untruthful (47% of independents, 31% of Democrats). http://thehill.com/homenews/media/318514-trump-admin-seen-as-more-truthful-than-news-media-poll
The President’s strategy is working.
EDUCATORS MUST RESPOND
It is not enough, then, to teach students how to ferret out falsehoods. It is critical, yes, but more is needed. We must set the context. We must explain the importance of a free press. We must explain the core principles of our Founding Fathers. We must point out how rulers around the world and throughout history have attacked the press in order to subjugate the citizenry. We must make clear that a free press is never the enemy of the people. And I fear, we must make clear that the President is frighteningly wrong.