The institution of a free press is at risk and democracy depends on it. (That’s why it’s protected in the First Amendment.)
Many Republicans believed and many non-supporters hoped that the campaign rhetoric would fade, and President Trump would put behind him and dampen the provocative positions taken by Candidate Trump for the purpose of garnering votes. The President’s latest statements at CPAC, escalating his war on what he calls “The Enemy of the People,” i.e. the Press, foreshadows a continued assault on the press. If effective, this would substantially weaken media’s ability to provide the important check/balance on the administration that Madison and company felt important enough to put at the top of the Bill of Rights.
I understand President Trump was (as he does) playing to the crowd. But combine that with the same day’s events–Sean Spicer’s blocking selected news organizations for a White House briefing, and Steve Bannon’s continued references to the press as “the opposition party, “–and it all looks like a well-orchestrated attack rather than the president just wandering off script to stir up the conservative crowd.
As others have pointed out, a strained relationship with the media is not unique to this administration. Its inherent in a system of checks and balances that there will be tensions between the checkers and those getting checked. President Obama made similar attempts to exclude Fox News in the face of its ongoing attacks. But, Obama smokes cigarettes too, which most rational people agrees unhealthy. Doesn’t make it a good idea.
The press has the power to bring pressure to bear on the administration through its influence on the citizenry, but ultimately the consequences don’t play out for three years and nine months. In the shorter term, reporters can choose not to report on those things that the administration wants reporting on, but with so many media outlets, the absence of coverage by one or a few publications will only hurt them.
So, maintaining the stature of the press requires unity. The press have to see the big picture importance of preserving their common interests, a difficult thing for competitors. The administration strategy seems to be to drive a wedge between media outlets with differing political dispositions in order to exploit the difficulty. Divide and conquer, in the words of Philip of Macedonia (no relation).
Fox’s Shepard Smith gets it. He defended his network’s arch rival and ideological opposite with “CNN is not fake news.” Sean Hannity doesn’t. After the recent Melbourne rally, his headline read, “Trump takes on the press and delivers devastating knockout.” I watch him occasionally for exposure to the full spectrum of views and I note he describes every attack on the media adding the word “liberal” in front of media. There is a bigger picture he’s missing.
Going into this blog, I had the Franklin quote about hanging together or hanging separately in mind. (Have been thinking about the founders a lot lately as I am in the middle of Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition.) The National Review’s David French got there first with that quote in his opinion piece on the press blockage. Good for him and his publication (as conservative as its founder Bill Buckley) for seeing the big picture. I hope he is correct in his assertions:
…the White House should know that it’s move is completely unsustainable. Every news organization with any integrity will rightly boycott briefings if the White House excludes disfavored outlets. This is yet another one of the informal but effective checks on White House power. While a portion of Trump’s base may hate the media so much that they’re fine if Sean Spicer ends up only briefing Gateway Pundit, most of the rest of America finds press exclusion ridiculous.
In fact, my hope is that there rest of America finds the press exclusion dangerous.