The role of the press within American political democracy is the envy of the world. It enjoys the protection of the first amendment of the constitution and in that capacity, the press acts as the watchdog and guardian of the public interest, and as a conduit between the governors and the governed. Lately, however, the press has not lived up to its responsibility. Investigative reporting, the hallmark of an effective media organization has taken a back seat to superficial and sensational news coverage. Instead of quality news gathering and insightful probing for the truth, news coverage has devolved into a race-to-the-bottom. You can watch the news all day and you will hear the same talking points repeated over and over.
In the current political climate, during the on-going presidential election season, this problem has been magnified. For the past three months, Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump has been open in spewing racist and hate-filled speech along with calculated and intentional lies to the public. Instead of doing their job and questioning him to defend his statements, most journalists have sat on the sidelines, tongue tied and even admiring him. Some hitherto respected media organizations and reporters call his brand of racist demagoguery “authenticity”. Since when has the ability to say bombastic and hurtful things qualify as authenticity.
Admittedly, there are some, particularly within the Republican Party, who share the nativist/racist sentiments of Donald Trump. But that should not stop the press from providing investigative reports aimed at informing the public on the truth or lack thereof of the statements and claims made by the candidate. Because of this mistaken sense of what is authentic and what is not, the press has its priorities turned upside down. They have mistaken political experience as a liability in favor of inexperience. So if you are Hilary Clinton or Jeb Bush, the narrative is that because of your experience, the public does not like you and they would rather vote for a clueless and uninformed racist who brings a “fresh” perspective.
For example, while Trump’s clearly and unmistakably false statements go unaddressed, the media has largely focused on Hilary Clinton’s email as their main political news worthy of coverage. In addition to the many false reporting and retractions of this issue, they continue to insist that the former secretary had done something wrong, even though they cannot point to any law that she had broken. Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC, whom everyone on that network holds up as a journalistic god, has particularly been unhinged about her reporting. She went as far as asking the former secretary to apologize for using her personal email. That’s like asking someone to apologize for using UPS or FedEx instead of the US post office for receiving their mail. When did that qualify as high crimes and misdemeanor?
The question must be asked, who have the secretary offended by using her personal email on her personal server and for which she paid someone to maintain? How did that hurt the American public that Ms. Mitchell and the media in general have been asking for? Of all that a cabinet secretary has to worry about, these unfocused journalists want us to believe that configuring an email system is where we should look for some sinister motives of the secretary. For four years, the media reported on Mrs. Clinton’s extensive diplomatic travels and accomplishments. At the end of her term, she had one of the highest approval ratings of anyone in the Obama cabinet. But the moment she declares to run for the presidency, she is targeted for negative and amateur reporting by people who should know better. How absurd is that? Personally, I am not much of a fan of the former secretary. But she is clearly the most experienced and ready to be president among all those vying for the office at this time. Furthermore, what the press has done to her campaign amounts to political witch hunt. The only mistake she has made thus far is in agreeing to have her entire official email released to the public.
If the networks are going to give Donald Trump free publicity as they have been doing, the least they can do is ask him the hard questions. How about asking him to provide the factual basis underlying his claims? How about calling him out when he uses his campaign speeches to promote his personal business and his ego? How about arming the journalist that covers his campaign activities with facts and have them challenge him when he starts spewing out those falsehoods. How about asking him why he is engaging in a racist campaign. When he makes those outrageous claims of how he is going to “make America great again” how about asking him how he plans to achieve that. And if he obfuscate, how about calling him out as unserious and without plan. The broadcast airwaves belong to the public and if a politician is getting a free ride under the guise of running for an office, it is the responsibility of these media networks to hold him to account.
On immigration, for example, Donald Trump has often mocked the statement from Jeb Bush, that immigrants seeking a better life in America do so out of love. That has become a big applause line in his campaign speeches. Why has no one asked him to explain how his grandfather’s immigration to the US in 1869 from Germany differs from those immigrants who seek to come to the US today? How does the immigration of millions of people from Europe and other parts of the world a hundred and fifty years ago differ from that of the people striving to do the same today? Did all those people receive invitations from the federal government to move here? What makes their coming here legal as opposed to those doing so today? Does coming here on a steam boat makes it legal as opposed to the Mexicans who crosses the border today? These are the questions the media need to ask when Mr. Trump next goes on his tirade against immigrants.
I can go on and on with questions that any journalist, who is reasonably trained, should be able to ask about the various falsehoods that the Republican candidates and Donald Trump in particular has been spreading throughout the current political season. It is unfortunate that the media landscape has become so commercialized to the point that serious reporting is difficult to sustain in the current competitive media markets that put a premium on the shallow and sensational. Be that as it may, it is incumbent on the journalistic profession to fight to maintain its lofty position within our democracy by not allowing it to be used as surrogates in the struggle between rival political groups. To do so would be sowing divisiveness rather than harmony, hate speech instead of informed debate, and suspicion rather than social trust, and thereby contributing to public distrust and egalitarian decline.