It’s a difficult time to be proud of everything about America. The president is vilified from all sides (some criticism deserved, some not), and what’s difficult to defend is the democratic process as we’ve used it to produce both the likes of Donald Trump and the press that rushes like lemmings to judgment.
That’s too bad. Honest criticism (not the mindless vilification) reaffirms democracy and our values, if we don’t lose the principles that make such criticism possible.
Now more than ever we must treasure freedom of speech. What’s more troubling today, more than any time in our nation’s history, is the way that speed and insidious repetition with which mindless criticism permeates the culture and attaches to the president, whether fact or fiction, accurate reporting or distorted opinion posing as reporting.
Most presidents have criticized the press for their attacks regarded as undeserved and off the mark. Abraham Lincoln characterized criticism by the press as “noise” and “gas,” produced by those who suffered from ignorance and self-elevation. He reckoned the noise and gas would quickly pass. Closer to our own time, Marlin Fitzwater, the White House press secretary to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, described the media as “an unwanted appendage, like a cocklebur that attaches to your pants legs.” But if you shake your leg long enough you might rid yourself of it.
When George W. Bush became president eight years after his father lost to Bill Clinton, many pundits characterized it as victory for the son getting a Bush back in the Oval Office, and getting back at his father’s bad press. George W. described the press as a “special interest” not representative of the public. He took pride in not reading newspapers or watching television news. When he was completing his first term, there was still no Facebook, no Twitter, no YouTube. Today such primitive press as there was is as archaic as an illuminated manuscript put under glass after the Reformation.
Just as the printing press revolutionized the delivery of information and altered forever the way the public responds to information, the technological transformation of the media has changed the nature and impact of the consumption of the news. The public has shorter attention spans, eager for tales and titillation at the touch of a key, click or button. News permeates the atmosphere like oxygen.
When Martin Luther got access to a printing press, he taught the new doctrine of “the priesthood of the believer,” persuading millions that they didn’t need a priest to intercede for them with God. On social media today, tweeters and trollers alike imagine they can connect and criticize, whether informed or ignorant, as equals of everyone of the cultural and political hierarchy, enabled, in the popular cliche, to “speak truth to power.”
But truth is as slippery as mercury. Ken Auletta, who covered the press for The New Yorker when Barack Obama was president, observed only two years into that administration that the pervasive content of the Web, and the endless argument on cable television, created “a pressure to entertain or perish, which has led the press’ dominant bias: not pro-liberal or pro-conservative but pro-conflict.” Less than a decade later partisan audiences avail themselves mainly to one view, left or right, so that great numbers of people conform to a mindset of narrow partisanship.
When President John F. Kennedy finished his solemn remarks to the public about the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, and the world was poised on the edge of destruction, the television networks returned at once to scheduled programming. There was no crossfire of pundits taking sides to parse what he said. Imagine how debate and criticism would follow such a speech today. Cable-TV would explode with gas and noise.
Contentious debate is good when it sorts and sifts, but if combined with pressure to entertain and the urge to sensationalize, it tempts reporters and analysts to become players in performance art rather than purveyors of information. The Washington Post newsroom broke into a raucous round of cheers the other day when it broke what it thought would be the story to destroy the president. By measurements of the internet, “readers per minute soared.”
The daily press conferences of Sean Spicer, the president’s press secretary are broadcast live on C-SPAN and are among the highest rated shows on daytime television. YouTube offers discussions of the “spiciest moments” of the day, illustrated with emojis of chili peppers and flames. Serious criticism in such an atmosphere is trivialized and the spotlight on the newsmakers are less illuminating than suspenseful. Who will ignite the next bombshell?
All this is rooted for now in an “outsider” president who tuned and tweaked his public persona in a reality television show, and whose brazen carelessness is amply documented. For its part the press acts on its Woodward and Bernstein envy without doing the hard digging (and disciplined editing) that made them famous. “Gotcha” may be fun to play, but the press, its customers and the First Amendment deserve a lot better.
• Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.
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