01 Oct Does the Media Help or Hurt Principled Politics?
CNN is short for Cable News Network. Its rival is Fox News Channel. Another source of political information is a newspaper. Or, maybe you watch the nightly news on local television to catch up on politics. There even is a “News” button on Facebook.
By their names, one would expect to see news when looking at all of these sources. “BREAKING NEWS,” as they often scream. But what one often receives is not news; it is opinion, entertainment, fear-mongering, and anything else they can think of to get our attention. What you often are seeing is media, not news. There is an important difference.
This post will explore the role of the media in politics. You probably can guess already that it is going to be a bit of a rant.*
*Your blogger studied both journalism and political science in college, which may explain his strong feelings about this topic. Suffice it to say for now that there were different professional standards in both fields 40 years ago.
Freedom of the Press to be Principled
Let us start with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….” Yes, “the press” has rights just as hallowed as the people’s fundamental right to free speech.
In the 23 decades since the First Amendment was adopted, however, the press has changed. Back in the late 1700s, there were newspapers, pamphlets, flyers, and a few magazines; and there were speeches. There was no photography or audio recording. There was no radio or television, of course. Cable and internet television, not to mention social media, were unimaginable. It was with those changes that the press morphed into the media. Specifically, as to political coverage, the news media is our current version of the press.
One thing that has not changed is that the news media remains interested in politics. Reporters attend politicians’ press conferences, newspaper headlines blare poll and voting results, and political pundits opine on the air and in print. The American people still pay attention, too, especially around election times and when issues are controversial.
There is so much that objective, diligent journalists could do today to enhance our political system. For example, at those press conferences, reporters can ask tough questions and keep “pressing” until they get the answers the American people need. This will facilitate the government principle of transparency. They can write truthful stories about politicians who demonstrate (or fail to demonstrate) the principles of understanding, dignity, and peace. When any politician lacks honesty or integrity, or is not worthy of respect, the media should tell us the facts about those failures of principle. When the federal government honors or dishonors American principles of freedom and free enterprise, equality, limited government, law and justice, or protecting the vulnerable, the facts about those also should be brought to our attention.
For all of this to be helpful, however, it must be done across-the-board, in an unbiased way. Therein lies the problem today.
When, exactly, did it become the job of “the press” to help or hurt politicians in elections? While the First Amendment certainly protects the freedom to do that, it does not indicate that journalists should become either a cheering squad or a jeering squad. They should not. The level of “rooting” for one side or another in the 2020 presidential election, in particular, was embarrassing to journalism. Clearly, some media members were trying to ensure that the president lost, while other media members were attempting to help him win. That was flagrant bias, and a biased media does not help our country.
In the interest of time and space, we will mention only two additional ways in which an unprincipled media diminishes the helpful role envisioned in our Constitution:
- Use of anonymous sources. Much of what we see as political news today comes from leaks. An agent of the government (or of a candidate) feeds information to a reporter anonymously. We know this for a fact when the reporter discloses that the source is “a person with knowledge who is not authorized to speak publicly” or “not allowed to discuss the sensitive subject.” What is mindboggling to Principle Based Politics is that the reporter trusts and gladly does the bidding for such a source, who by definition is either: (1) lying about not being authorized or (2) unethically passing along truly confidential information. Cannot the reporter see how he or she is being manipulated by a liar or a cheat? Is it not obvious to the reporter that the leak is being made for political gain, rather than to bring objective facts to the public? It should provide no solace either to media members or politicians that other people are playing the same, unprincipled game.
- At some point, it became more important for most media outlets to get ratings and readers than to find truth. The breathlessness of the reporting of allegedly breaking news—the worse news the better—is another embarrassment to journalism. Fear, tragedy, outrage, fighting, negativity, shock, dissention, and anger may get attention, but the freedom of the press to sensationalize it all is not what our First Amendment drafters sought to protect.
The shame in all of this is that there is so much a free press could do to shed light on our political system. Objectivity, fairness, reliable sources, and rationality all would help voters to do our job and protect democracy.
This is Where We the People Come In
Speaking of the voters, we are both consumers of news and deciders of who leads us. As such, we must not allow ourselves to be manipulated by those politicians who feed anonymous information to us through desperate media members. We must realize that the politicians are trying to stoke our fears about the “bad guys” on the other side politically, and the media wants our eyeballs on their stories. Both politicians and the media need us. All of this puts us in the driver’s seat. We should drive calmly and wisely.
Are we going to read, believe, and react to everything a liar or unethical person planted with the press just so we will listen, believe, and react? Are we going to watch cable television opinion shows (they are not news shows) that deepen the divide in our country by fomenting outrage in an echo chamber? Or, are we going to demand the truth?
We can see that today’s politicians and political media are playing us. Some politicians’ goals are their own gains of power. The media’s goal is financial gain through the sale of advertising. Their gain is our loss. It is principled politics’ loss.
Written by Quentin R. Wittrock, founder of Principle Based Politics.
Look for his posts twice each week, as this blog will explore and promote the idea of principle in politics, both as to individual elected leaders and our federal government as an institution.