News We Can Lose?

First Amendment, Government Information, Information Literacy

By: Jamie LaRue

One of the many ironies of the Trump presidency is that he owes his electoral college win, as he owes his continuing dominance of the news cycle, to precisely the people he attacks: the mainstream media. In 2016, according to various reports, he spent far less than previous Republican presidential candidates on network advertising. Nonetheless, he got an estimated $5 billion in “earned income” — media mentions that he didn’t pay for. “He received $5.6 billion throughout the entirety of his campaign, more than Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio combined,” writes TheStreet.

So how did that happen? One explanation is that the media tends to report on politics as if it were sports. It’s A or B, a winner or a loser, a zero sum game. This is the game of partisanship. Perhaps, too, it’s the easy story to tell, requiring little in the way of analysis or apparent consequence.

Arguably, the media has moved to something new: now they cover politics like reality TV. It’s not even about winners and losers anymore. It’s about the spectacle, the outrage, the drama. In 2016, while news coverage of Trump tended to be more negative than that of Clinton, “the various Clinton-related email scandals accounted for more sentences than all of Trump’s scandals combined.” Nonetheless, Trump got far more mentions over all, and “mentions” equals mindshare.

Trump continues to capture our attention. In the first month of his presidency alone, January 2017, his earned income was “an estimated $817 million.”

And now, today, as the nation grapples with over 1.1 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 68,000 deaths, Trump is still crowding out the daily White House briefings on the pandemic. Indeed, Trump bragged about the “ratings,” in which he reached some 12 million viewers.

Yet even journalists themselves are questioning whether they have gone too far. It’s one thing to have a president railing against media unfairness, denying trysts with strippers, or claiming unparalleled greatness. It’s something else entirely to downplay the seriousness of a public health emergency, or to urge the use of unproved and potentially deadly medicines, or to suggest that disinfectants might be taken internally. Such a president becomes an active public menace.

Over 100,000 people, as well as various prominent media pundits, and even the Wall Street Journal, have called to simply stop carrying the Presidential “pressers” (press conferences). On the one hand, what the president says is, or might be, news. On the other, that may not excuse providing a free platform that is both an unpaid campaign rally, and becomes a source of worrying public misinformation.

Conservative media, of course, sees things differently. To Sean Hannity, media liberals feared the sight of Trump looking “too presidential.”

So let’s consider the matter plainly: if national mainstream media stops covering Trump’s supposed coronavirus briefings, if they feature only the medical experts and summarize Trump’s statements rather than carrying them live, is that censorship?

The answer, of course, is No. First, the First Amendment can’t dictate what private entities must say or cover. Newspapers and TV stations have the right to speak freely, too. And even if it pains the president not to be the key focus of a TV spot, that doesn’t create an obligation on anyone else’s part.

Moreover, being denied that single outlet hardly silences Donald Trump. Indeed, it’s hard to know where one could go to avoid hearing about him.

Does the media at least have the responsibility to provide “the other side” of an argument, if Trump does speak, under an “equal time” doctrine? Again, the answer is No. If media accepts political advertising from one party, they have to provide it to opponents at the same rate. But again, the government can’t force a media outlet to cover a particular story, or cover it in a particular way, or with a particular cast of characters.

In some ways, all of this raises many questions about just what the purpose of the press, like the purpose of the library, really is. An informed citizenry? Profit? The public good? Entertainment? To be the tool of those with powerful interests? To hold the narcissist’s mirror?

How the media responds to these existential questions matters, now, and in November.

Jamie LaRue

Jamie LaRue is a former public library administrator, former director of the Freedom to Read Foundation and ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, and a current consultant and speaker.

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