In light of the current presidential administration’s accusations of “fake news,” many Americans worry about the security of press freedom. With White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer literally declaring war on the media, this may seem to be an existential threat to the future of American journalism. However, the news media have brought these troubles upon themselves.
Perhaps 50 years ago, Spicer and his boss, President Donald Trump, would have been cast away and labeled as conspiracists. Their radical message would fail to gain traction with Americans who generally trusted what they read in the morning paper or saw on the evening news. Back then, the news was actually newsworthy. The media reported on matters that helped citizens steer their democracy or informed their understanding of the world around them. I don’t mean to romanticize the journalism of the past because surely, it had its own serious institutional issues. Trustworthiness and usefulness to the public, however, were not among them. I offer the coverage of Richard Nixon’s administration as proof. Much like Trump and Spicer, Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew went to great lengths to undermine the media. And it didn’t work. Journalists checked the president at every turn, and within a matter of a few years, he resigned from the office disgraced and humiliated after the press aired his filthy laundry in the public sphere. The citizenry trusted the information flowing through the media channels and responded with an outcry expected of the betrayed and deceived. Today, the press cannot coordinate well enough behind an important narrative to tell a complete story, let alone take down a corrupt politician. Even if it could, who would listen? Public trust in the media has been eroded to the point that even the most significant story would fall on deaf or willfully ignorant ears.
Not that it matters, I blame television news for this upsetting phenomenon. Their sensationalist coverage and partisan hackery has brought the institution back to the era of “yellow journalism.” News of the day’s violent crimes, tragedies and celebrity scandals cloud the airwaves at 6 every evening. This coverage lacks perspective and does nothing to help the public self-govern. When the anchors turn their focus to politics, the coverage is weak and often spun to fit a biased narrative. My 89-year-old grandmother now watches the evening broadcast with a rosary in her hands, as she prays for the world portrayed onscreen. Television news drives viewers to the point of utter hopelessness, when it should convince them to act.
I offer only one solution, though it may really be just wishful thinking: the credible news outlets must separate themselves from the cancerous ones that undermine the whole of journalism. Fortunately, I see a scenario in the very near future in which this sort of divorce is possible. The news outlets and journalists dedicated to the truth and objectivity, of which there are few, must pounce on the opportunity to combat lies and corruption in government. Though many people fear the Trump’s apparent desire to erase press freedom, perhaps nobody will be more helpful in building media trust. There is finally someone in politics less trustworthy than the media. After a few years of broken promises and deception, the American people will look for answers. I know CNN, FOX News and MSNBC won’t be there to give people these answers, but hopefully real news organizations will be. When the newly empowered public sees who is really providing the news, it will turn to trustworthy sources of information. Maybe I’m wrong, but I guess we’ll find out soon enough.