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Friday, November 18, 2016

What if the press is only a bulwark of its own liberty?

One reason many people (including me, I admit) believed Donald Trump would not win the presidency was that political institutions designed to protect against untruthful authoritarians and demagogues would expose him and his lies and his threats to American liberty, and the public would take heed. Chief among these was the institutional media. That did not happen, for a variety of reasons that people will be writing about for many years, especially if the Trump administration goes as badly as many fear.

But one idea floating around is that the election exposed a fatal flaw in the narrative of the press as bulwark of liberty: It cares about  its own institutional liberty and stands up only against threats to that liberty. But where the threat is directed elsewhere (e.g., Muslims or Mexican immigrants or his political opponents or African-Americans or the rest of the world), the dogged and outraged coverage wanes (or is outweighed by other shiny objects, such as emails). There might be something to this. If we think about the conduct and statements that triggered media coverage and outrage during (and after) the election, most involved direct actions or threats against the institutional media: stripping publications of access to rallies (and the similar threat to deny White House credentials); successfully ginning up anger at rallies directed toward the media generally and news organizations such as CNN in particular; direct attacks on particular journalists (Megyn Kelly, Katy Tur, etc.); the promise to "open up" libel laws; the refusal to disclose his tax returns (which would be reported through the press to the public). The latest is Trump ditching the press pool to go to a restaurant, after informing reporters he was done for the evening, a breach of the "transparency" the media demands.

These are not unimportant acts, they do threaten the ability of the press to perform its "Fourth Estate" function of checking government abuse and informing the public, and they warrant discussion and publicity. But they arguably receive outsize coverage, more coverage than many of Trump's other, arguably more serious, sins.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 18, 2016 at 09:31 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink


Trump's newest claim re: "saving" a factory in KY from moving to Mexico is an example of his control of the media. See: https://twitter.com/JerryDMayer/status/799469470783864832

Posted by: Andrea Boyack | Nov 18, 2016 9:55:35 AM

The press would logically be inclined to support its own interests.

Various analyses have discussed how the press is inclined to report only certain things, which in various cases will inhibit the promotion of the truth. This has been a long term concern, including how the profit motive skewers results.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 18, 2016 10:34:08 AM

It seems to me that (a) the press gave (much to my frustration) Trump way-outsized press coverage in the primary, for ratings' sake, and included coverage of various outrages, but in a kind of "isn't he ridiculous?" mode, without any sense of urgency or need to "stop him" and (b) it did this, at least in part, because many journalists (being human beings with political views and partisan preferences) thought that it was in the interests of the candidate they preferred that Donald Trump be the nominee.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Nov 18, 2016 12:17:39 PM

I think the title of this post is spot-on. One of the few times the media (or at least the WH press) worked itself into a tizzy about an Obama administration policy was regarding its investigation of a reporter in an information leaking case.

Posted by: biff | Nov 18, 2016 1:25:39 PM

The press is now quickly moving to normalize Trump in all areas other than his treatment of the press. To do otherwise would be to admit that their "both sides do it" coverage throughout the last year-plus was grievously wrong.

Posted by: James Milles | Nov 18, 2016 1:30:45 PM

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