If you listen to President Donald Trump’s critics, you’d think freedom of the press in this country is under siege. Trump has labeled “fake news” media as “the enemy of the people,” a phrase that seems fitting for a totalitarian, not an American president. But is it really unique for an American politician to attack and delegitimize the media?
That’s the assumption driving the media’s largely self-serving narrative about Trump’s threat to press freedom. But New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio reminded us this week when he slammed Fox News that Trump isn’t the only politician attacking the media, and that liberals have no problem with attacks on the press — so long as the attacks are aimed at the right outlets.
De Blasio placed the lion’s share of the blame for the dismal state of contemporary American politics on Fox News and its owner Rupert Murdoch in an interview with The Guardian.
“If you could remove News Corp from the last 25 years of American history, we would be in an entirely different place,” he said, attributing the “negativity and divisiveness” in American society, and Trump’s election, to the work of Fox.
De Blasio’s comment here echoes the attacks on Fox News that were a constant theme of the Obama administration. Very few liberal journalists jumped to the defense of the network then, and very few defend the network now. Yet these same journalists come unstuck when Trump singles out liberal outlets, and work themselves into a panic over him trying to shut them down.
Of course, it’s very unlikely Trump actually would take steps to shut down the press. But there’s little question that Trump’s attacks on journalists he doesn’t like are producing some unsavory results. If reporters and columnists who speak about the issue are to be believed, threats against them on the rise. Scenes in which journalists are singled out for abuse at Trump rallies give his supporters the appearance of a mob thirsting for the humiliation of the president’s foes, if not their blood. Though there is nothing new about antagonism between politicians and press foes, the level of invective at play here seems to reflect the way the rise of social media and Trump has coarsened political discourse.
Nevertheless, for all of the hysteria about Trump seeking to shut down democracy, the ability of the press to not merely do its job but to regularly attack the president with an openly partisan spirit is undiminished. For many in the mainstream media, particularly The New York Times and CNN, Trump’s presidency has caused them to shuck off even the faintest pretense of objectivity.
If former White House advisor Steve Bannon termed the media the true “opposition party” to Trump, journalists like CNN’s White House correspondent Jim Acosta seem to have willingly embraced that role. His grandstanding at White House press briefings has transformed him into a celebrity and a hero to the anti-Trump “resistance,” even if his debates with press secretary Sarah Sanders have made him all but indistinguishable from an opinion columnist.
Still, the impression the liberal press create is of something awful and unique about Trump’s attacks on the media.
Trump’s language and his willingness to abuse his tormentors at rallies strikes some observers as a form of incitement that is both indirectly responsible for violence directed at journalists, such as the attack on the newsroom of the Annapolis Capital-Gazette. That shooting had nothing to do with Trump, as it was carried out by an individual with a long running grudge against the paper for legal reasons, but that didn’t stop the liberal press from trying to draw a connection.
The only genuine incident of political violence in this country during the last year and a half actually involved a supporter of Bernie Sanders attacking a Republican baseball practice that left House Minority Whip Steve Scalise and others wounded. Yet it has become something of an article of faith that what Trump is doing eclipses harsh rhetoric — including over the top and egregious comparisons of his administration to fascists and Nazis — from his predecessors or his opponents.
To note Obama’s ongoing vendetta against Fox News doesn’t excuse Trump’s willingness to play fast and loose with the truth or to decry any critical piece of journalism as “fake news.” Yet the widespread belief that Trump’s attacks on the media are unique is both ahistorical and a testimony to the bias of those who saw nothing untoward in Obama’s campaign to brand Fox as detached from reality.
Obama warned listeners that those who watched Fox got a distorted view of events — the liberal press didn’t mind. Now some of those same journalists and outlets characterize Trump’s similar attacks on CNN or The New York Times as Stalinist. When reporters from papers whose coverage was insufficiently sycophantic were kicked off Obama’s campaign plane, liberal reporters didn’t protest much. They also quickly moved past the news that the Justice Department was targeting James Rosen because of his reporting.
De Blasio’s salvo at Fox was an opportunity for some of the president’s critics to correct this inconsistency, especially since it coincided with Trump’s latest anti-media tirade. What the mayor was really saying is that he liked it better when network and cable news was uniformly liberal, albeit while pretending to be objective and neutral.
As has often been pointed out during the last quarter century, what Murdoch and the late Roger Ailes did with the creation of Fox was to fill an underserved audience that comprises approximately half of the American people. The “divisiveness” of Fox largely consists of it providing an alternative view. What Fox provides is a taste of democracy the left finds unpalatable.
Like most of his exercises in “counter-punching,” Trump’s attacks on his press detractors are unseemly and serve primarily to please his supporters. But if these believe Trump’s journalistic critics have no credibility, it’s largely because the liberal media has spent the last generation convincing them of their bias. And with figures like Acosta playing the role of opposition party, why should Trump’s fans believe the liberal press, even when they are telling the truth about the president?
If attacks on the media and a desire to purge the press of troublesome critics is truly a sign of incipient fascism or a desire to eradicate the First Amendment, then why is the liberal press silent about de Blasio’s attacks on Fox? Sadly, too many in the media seem willing to mimic de Blasio’s transparently pathetic claims that liberal attacks on the press are somehow a defense of democracy while those of Trump aim at undermining it. By sticking to that party line, liberal journalists are merely reinforcing the belief of many Americans that their complaints about Trump persecuting them are merely partisan talking points rather than outrage about a genuine threat to freedom.