Among the many issues which define the modern-day culture wars is the issue of “the press.” Donald Trump bloviates repeatedly about “the press” and how terrible and biased it is, but dissatisfaction with the establishment media has been a recurrent theme even before Trump’s election.
In response to rising criticism of “the media,” many media outlets have argued that such criticism constitutes an attack on freedom of the press and an attempt to undermine the role the media plays as a guardian of liberty against tyranny. The latest entry in this genre comes from CNN, where Professor Joseph Holt of Notre Dame University makes the argument that Trump’s criticism of the press is dangerous to the civic culture of the United States, and implies that the press should be viewed as akin to military personnel who place themselves at great risk to defend freedom.
Professor Holt’s view has been criticized for a perceived attempt to usurp the cultural prestige granted to military personnel; certainly placing oneself in the vicinity of gunfire and getting PTSD is a substantially more harrowing experience than writing an article and claiming to get PTSD from critical responses to that article being directed to one’s Twitter account. However it is really no surprise that the media would see itself as heroic; just as Aristotle argued that being a philosopher was truly the most noble calling, journalism has its own culture of self-regard.
But Professor Holt’s argument has a far more substantial flaw: it conflates criticism of actually-existing journalists and actually-existing media institutions with criticism of the abstract idea that people should engage in journalism and speak truth to power. Thus, the criticism is dodged rather than contested. I have substantial ambivalences about Donald Trump, but if one wishes to refute a criticism he levels then it should go without saying that one should engage with the actual criticism being made.
Attacks on “the media” are not attacks on the media in abstract; it is a widely-accepted truth in a (classically) liberal democracy that the free flow of information is a necessity to prevent tyranny. The attacks being made by Trump and other critics of mainstream media malfeasance are not arguments against the necessity of people speaking truth to power or fact-checking assertions made by the government, rather they are arguments that the specific institutions and individuals which claim to be performing this necessary task are failing to do so in a manner with integrity. One can believe that there is a vital function to be played by the media without necessarily thinking that CNN or InfoWars are doing a good job at serving this function.
Professor Holt argues that Trump’s critical language about the press is frightening because it “suggests Trump would prevent mainstream media from criticizing him if he had the power to do so.” Maybe that is true, but Trump does not have that power; the First Amendment provides the American press with more protection than any other press corps in the world, and paranoid fantasies of a sudden demolition of press freedoms are indeed paranoid.
This sudden fear of Trump attacking journalism is an obvious case of partisanship; the mainstream media was hardly critical about the Obama administration’s practice of treating Fox News as an enemy organization, and their opinion about Wikileaks was positive when Wikileaks was critical of the W Bush administration. They changed their tune though when Wikileaks leaked the Podesta Emails. Then there is the issue of the government attempting to stop the release of a documentary by Citizens United that was critical of Hillary Clinton. Even though both Wikileaks and Citizens United served the vital function of disseminating critical information to the public, none of the big news organizations stoked fears about the impending demise of the freedom of the press.
Perhaps Professor Holt is making an honest error. Indeed, a lot of articles about “defending press freedom in Trump’s America” seem prone to conflating “the press in abstract” with “the establishment press corps” which reveals a mistaken understanding of the concept of “freedom of the press.”
In the classical liberal tradition, freedoms are universal, and everyone has the same rights. As such, freedom of the press is something everyone has; freedom of the press is the right to engage in the activity of journalism. It is fundamentally an implication of freedom of speech; we are speaking of the freedom to communicate information and ideas between parties.
But those who conflate criticism of press organisations with criticism of the abstract concept of “the press” seem to believe that “freedom of the press” is a special right belonging exclusively to the individuals and organizations who constitute the establishment media. This is an inherently elitist position; it claims a special privilege for a special subset of people. In this mindset, freedom of the press is their freedom, which means it doesn’t belong to Wikileaks or Citizens United.
If someone criticizes them on Twitter, it is an attack on free speech! A politician’s vocalized discontent with them is a threat to their freedom! If they pour scorn on their audience and the audience then retaliates by mocking them, then that audience has fundamentally embraced fascism! They are freedom of the press, and anyone who criticizes them or doesn’t accept what they say must be secretly planning institute fascism in America.
During the Gamergate controversy, a journalist by the name of Leigh Alexander was mocked for her tweeting “I am games journalism.” Ms Alexander’s attitude, taken literally, seems to be a microcosm; many journalists seem to think that they are journalism. But journalists are not journalism. It is perfectly consistent to criticize the established mainstream press corps and hold a classically liberal view on the role of journalism in resisting government tyranny.
We want a press corps that is willing and able to speak truth to power. But that doesn’t mean all journalists or all media outlets are Woodward and Bernstein. Criticism of the media is not a threat to press freedom.