Is the Free Press Under Attack?

I participated in a symposium yesterday at the National Press Club in D.C. called Truth, Trust, and the First Amendment in the Digital Age. It was sponsored by the University of Missouri Law School and the Mizzou School of Journalism – one of the oldest journalism program’s in the country. There were two panels. The first was constituted of first amendment lawyers, the second of journalists. I was supposed to be on the first, but was asked to pinch-hit on the second for Greta van Sustern who had to cancel due to a family matter.

Both panels were quite good. The people both interesting and cordial. Clarence Page in particular, my neighbor on the panel, was convivial and talked a great deal of good sense.

I was struck by a few things, each of which is worthy of more concentrated attention but here are my initial thoughts:

  1. “The press” is an abstraction. Yet, when people wring their hands about perceived threats to the “the free press” they usually mean that the elite, legacy media has come in for some uncomfortable and unwelcome criticism. Journalism, reporting, and free political expression are not and should not be monolithic. But guilds and incumbents don’t like competition.
  2. The First Amendment guarantees the right to speak freely both individually and institutionally. Floyd Abrams, the dean of first amendment lawyers, and my companion at lunch helped define that when he won the Citizens United case. The first amendment does not create an institution known as “the press” that holds a privileged position above and outside of civil society. Yes, I know there are certain carve-outs that allow journalists to protect sources, but the central point remains the same: the first amendment exists to protect the right of all citizens to freely engage in political, even and especially adversarial, political discourse. It is not intended to created oligopoly.
  3. “The press,” especially since Watergate, takes itself very seriously and does not like being the butt end of any jokes. That’s why the president’s liberal use of the term “fake news” causes so much consternation. “Fake news” is rarely used to mean lies and falsehoods. More often it is a simple barb meant to elicit an indignant response. In that respect, it is very effective. As a criticism, it is commonly understood to mean agenda journalism and bias. Nearly as often it is just a wry joke.
  4. Free political speech and journalism are practiced by all kinds of people and institutions, not just the established organs of elite orthodoxy. From the major television networks to the papers, to podcasts, blogs, YouTube, and Twitter there are more people freely speaking out on politics and culture than ever before. The old cartel that dominated roughly from the end of World War II until the turn of the century has competition. That’s a good thing. Diversity is our strength, right?
  5. But what about standards and accuracy? Good question. Remember when President Trump tweeted that his campaign’s communications had been tapped? He was roundly denounced for making baseless accusations. But he was right. (see also the Nunes Memo) What about when CNN falsely reported Anthony Scaramucci had clandestine ties to Russia? No fact-checking, no confirmation, just a rush to accuse because the claim fit a pre-approved conclusion. Except it was wrong. That’s fake news. And it’s because of these sorts of incidents that the term “fake news” resonates with people.
  6. The crisis of elite media is just a subset of the larger crisis facing all elite institutions but especially the media, the academy, the arts, and the federal government. (I intentionally exempt state and local government because they enjoy much more confidence than their D.C. counterparts.) This is the direct result of the concentration of power implemented by progressives beginning over a century ago. Rule by experts was considered the mark of enlightened governance for a scientific age. Technocrats would do what self-government couldn’t. Or so they claimed. Instead, centralization of power has bred distrust, alienation, and finally, we hope, a corrective.
  7. So what about quality, integrity, honesty? Well…what about it? Straight stick—crooked stick, I like to say. D.L. Moody said it makes no sense to argue over whether or not a crooked stick is actually crooked or not. Just lay a straight stick next to it and everyone will see. That goes for journalism too. Quality journalism will always be in demand. Those fretting over perceived threats to legacy media that have come in for criticism from the president should remember that “the failing New York Times” is in the midst of a Trump-driven boom. Paid subscriptions have soared since his election. Ditto for The Washington Post. We should all be so fortunate to fail so distinctly upwards.
  8. Is freedom of the press or freedom of speech imperiled because Donald Trump criticizes certain news outlets? No. Criticism of news media is perfectly acceptable—just as acceptable, even desirable, as is criticism of politicians and government. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes right? On the contrary, Major Garret reported at the symposium that reporters actually have much more direct access to this president than they have had to past presidents whose carefully scripted messages were conveyed through their comms team.

Click here for video of the symposium.

About Chris Buskirk

Chris is publisher and editor of American Greatness and the host of The Chris Buskirk Show. He was a Publius Fellow at the Claremont Institute and received a fellowship from the Earhart Foundation. Chris is a serial entrepreneur who has built and sold businesses in financial services and digital marketing. He is a frequent guest on NPR's "Morning Edition." His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Hill, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @TheChrisBuskirk

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