Activist jounalism in the age of Trump

The media never seemed to care when Obama’s weak foreign policy enabled Russia’s takeover of Crimea and entrenchment in Syria.

Matthew M. Hausman, J.D.

OpEds President Donald Trump speaks with Fox & Friends
President Donald Trump speaks with Fox & Friends

Donald Trump’s relationship with the media has become increasingly hostile as many journalists have aligned themselves with the anti-Trump “resistance” and sacrificed professional objectivity in the process.  The president uses the term “fake news” to delegitimize the press and play to his base, while members of the mainstream media accuse him of criticizing them unfairly.

Not all news is false, but it is not unreasonable to question when dubious stories are “fake” or merely slanted, whether there is a difference, and whether Mr. Trump bears any responsibility for instigating journalistic backlash.  These are fair questions that demand honest responses, not rote denials by reporters who claim to be objective but cannot credibly refute the existence of bias, or who hysterically claim that Trump’s criticisms threaten their rights under the First Amendment.

Journalists should make it their business to report on the doings of government, and the press is protected for that very reason by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”  But with great rights comes great responsibility, and the media’s responsibility is to be a nonpartisan watchdog of government. The Constitution does not delineate the press’s functions, but it does provide essential protections to enable journalists to report on government without interference.  The founding fathers envisioned a press free of regulation because politicians and elected officials could not be expected to report on themselves objectively.

The Constitution’s protections also apply to editorial opinions that are critical of government.  However, journalists should maintain a bright line between fact and opinion to report truth as it is, not as they would like it to be.  Unfortunately, journalists today are frequently blinded by ideological loyalties that undercut their neutrality; and news reports are often skewed to put this president in a negative light by ignoring his economic and foreign policy successes, offering political diatribes as objective analysis, and, yes, sometimes reporting false claims as news without adequate (or sometimes any) fact checking.  

For his part, the president impugns media integrity by describing all news with which he disagrees as “fake” and responding with tweets that often contain more hyperbole than factual counterpoint.  It is certainly possible to report news that is unflattering but accurate, and he would be better served by challenging stories he says are untrue and clearly articulating why.

Unquestionably, some stories have been false (e.g., post-inauguration claims that he removed a bust of Martin Luther King from the White House) or based on uncorroborated sources without proper fact checking (e.g., multiple reports – later shown to be hoaxes – of unprovoked attacks perpetrated in his name against Muslims).  Other stories have created false impressions by taking facts out of context (e.g., a tweet casting aspersions on an ICE employee by mischaracterizing his military tattoo as a Nazi symbol). Still others have presented opinion as objective reportage (e.g., stories drawing insupportable parallels between administration programs and Nazi policies).

Some news organizations are vested in portraying this administration negatively, as reflected by an undercover interview last year with a CNN editor who admitted his network’s policy of pushing the Trump-Russia issue despite a knowing lack of corroboration.  

Likewise, it cannot be denied that journalists often write stories consistent with their own partisan sensibilities. One need only peruse direct news sources on the internet to see that many outlets are not fully reporting administration successes like the economic recovery, unprecedented GDP growth, record decreases in minority unemployment, key judicial appointments, and the reassertion of American authority abroad.

This is not to say Mr. Trump is beyond criticism.  Analyses questioning his policies, political relationships, beliefs, use of social media, and rhetoric are entirely appropriate.  However, journalists should report the positive as well as the negative based on newsworthiness and not ignore stories that vindicate administration policy.  News should be reported to convey facts as they occur, regardless of how writers and their editors might regard the president’s style, manner, or character. As brash as his tweeted comments may be, they do not obviate the media’s responsibility to report newsworthy events.

Though Mr. Trump certainly engages in hyperbole, his facility for audaciousness is more than matched by his opponents in the press.  His public comments leading up to the summit with North Korea, for example, were reported as bellicose, inflammatory, and dangerous, until his strategy brought Kim Jong-Un to the table (though to what effect remains unclear), after which the media instead criticized his tactics as impotent and weak.  He is also portrayed as obsequious towards Vladimir Putin, though his administration has imposed far greater sanctions against Russia than Barack Obama ever did and has challenged the Russians militarily in Syria. This president has also confronted Chinese economic belligerence and Iranian intransigence, and he constantly chastises the UN for its blatant and contemptible anti-Semitism and unbalanced treatment of Israel.  According to many journalists, however, these actions are reflective of mental instability.

Ironically, the media never seemed to care when Obama’s weak foreign policy enabled Russia’s takeover of Crimea and entrenchment in Syria.  Likewise, it had no issue when Obama seemed to ignore the threat of Chinese and North Korean cyberespionage, or facilitated the ascendancy of Islamic radicals throughout the Mideast – resulting in the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and empowerment of Libyan Islamists who waged civil war, attacked the US consulate in Benghazi, and killed Ambassador Chris Stevens.

It may seem counterproductive when President Trump refers to all unflattering coverage as “fake news,” but his use of the term does not threaten any constitutionally protected rights, irrespective of the mainstream’s overwrought First Amendment concerns.  Though Trump misses no opportunity to chide the media, he does not deny its right to publish what it wants, which distinguishes him from some of his predecessors, including Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson, who shut down hundreds of newspapers and jailed thousands without trial for seditious speech.  

The mainstream media’s newfound concern for the Constitution rings hollow given its penchant for delegitimizing conservative discourse, advocating regulation of political speech with which it disagrees, and belittling viewpoints that question progressive orthodoxy.  Its recent editorial calls for civility are likewise disingenuous for largely ignoring provocations by liberal pundits, such as those comparing Trump’s policies to Islamist terrorism.

Yes, the president seems to focus excessive ire on CNN, but today’s media watchdogs did not seem to mind when President Obama did the same to Fox News, impugning its integrity, calling it an arm of the Republican Party, and attempting to stifle its correspondents.  And where was their outrage when Obama’s Justice Department threatened journalists like James Rosen with subpoenas and indictments over their coverage of his White House? The misuse of government offices to bully journalists really did threaten the First Amendment; and yet the mainstream refused to confront such Obama-era abuses or defend Fox News’s speech and press rights.

The First Amendment stops only government from restricting speech and press.  It does not constrain private citizens from asking questions or exempt the press from scrutiny for slanted reporting.

It was certainly troubling when President Trump excluded a CNN reporter from the White House correspondent pool, and even conservative networks that chastise CNN’s bias came to its defense.  However, it was wrong when President Obama attempted to do the same to Fox News in 2009 – although most networks at the time remained silent and expressed no concern for the First Amendment.

The propensity for many journalists to report selectively or untruthfully is not unique to their coverage of Trump.  Rather, it is consistent with their record of bashing Israel, tolerance of progressive anti-Semitism, exculpatory coverage of left-wing extremist movements like Antifa and Occupy Wall Street, and use of the progressive agenda as a compass to guide their reporting.  Nevertheless, the way to combat the media’s abuses is not to shut it down, but to challenge it point-by-point. Indeed, this is exactly what the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (“CAMERA”) does regarding dubious coverage of Israel and Jewish issues.  

In taking this approach, it’s important to recognize that the First Amendment prohibits only government from restricting speech and press.  It does not constrain private citizens from asking questions or exempt the press from scrutiny for slanted reporting. Moreover, the Constitution does not preclude individuals, even sitting presidents, from voicing skepticism over content, but instead protects their right to do so.  Perhaps reporters who profess concern for the First Amendment now, after ignoring it for eight years, should actually read it and take its lessons to heart.