President Trump often rails against what he calls “fake news.” Is he correct? Are most commercial television news broadcasts and major newspapers filled with falsehoods and half-truths? On occasion Trump has gone so far as to charge that the purveyors of fake news are “enemies of the people.” Such statements by the President infuriate television commentators and newsmen, and they charge him with seeking to destroy their precious first amendment freedoms.
There have been complaints about the liberal bias of network news and big city newspapers for decades. In 2001 a prominent CBS reporter, Bernard Goldberg, wrote a bestselling book titled, Bias: How the Media Distort the News. After the book was published, the author, though previously respected as a liberal commentator, became persona non grata at ABC, CBS, and NBC. In Goldberg’s view, bias is real, but he also thinks that it is largely unconscious. Most newsmen would deny biased reporting, and they would be sincere in their denials. Yet, our news is constantly being run through a liberal filter. Unfortunately, the filter tends to be invisible to liberal reporters and their liberal audience since they all tend to interpret events in the same way.
Reviewing Goldberg’s book, one person wrote “The media has a right to report in any way they like. But they have an obligation to distinguish between fact and editorial comment. They have an obligation to report fact without regard to the political consequences of that fact. If they elect to add editorial comment to their reporting and acknowledge it as editorial comment, well, that’s their right as American citizens. But to deliberately, maliciously lie to us about what is happening and what it means is immoral and unethical. To fail to distinguish between news and editorial comment is unethical. To suppress news or deliberately lie about the facts to advance a political agenda is unethical.”
The ideological makeup of the newsroom staffs at ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, and NBC is quite different from that of the general population. Reporters tend to be very liberal/progressive in their political opinions, and they are naturally attracted to politicians of the same stripe. Few prominent television reporters are frequent churchgoers, but 40% or more of television watchers attend religious services regularly. Reporters tend toward secular humanism. They are usually culturally and socially liberal as well as politically progressive, and they do not comprehend the political views and social mores of Christian evangelicals and conservative Catholics. They cannot understand how a man like Donald Trump, thrice married and often profane, receives support from these people, and they cannot see that the secularism and condescension of the political left is driving these same people away.
Most media types went to the same schools, have the same coterie of friends, and engage in group-think. Consider how often identical catch phrases are parroted on major network news programs. Also, news people frequently display arrogant disdain for those whom they obviously consider semi-literate bumpkins, especially those poor, ignorant people unfortunate enough to live in the rural South or in fly-over country. These are the bumpkins that Trump attracts with his fulminations against liberal courts (Gorsuch! Kavanaugh!), appeals to patriotism (USA! USA! USA!), and promises of a return to the good old days (MAGA).
Many newsmen regard Trump’s appeals to his followers as nothing more than nativistic jingoism, and they are determined to fight it with ever fiber of their being and with every weapon at their disposal. With this attitude, it is no wonder that news processed through the liberal media becomes skewed. On television news programs, bias is often reflected in the way stories are chosen and how certain elements of a story are emphasized. In newspapers, the bias may appear in the way a headline is written to give a liberal or anti-conservative slant to a politically neutral story, and often the bias is evident in the story itself.
During the presidency of Barack Obama the liberal media had one of their own in the White House. Support was often effusive, and television and newspaper reporters were remarkably restrained in their criticisms of Obama’s occasional missteps. The bias was so obvious that Bernard Goldberg wrote another book that he titled, A Slobbering Love Affair: The True (And Pathetic) Story of the Torrid Romance Between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media. Despite its offsetting title, this publication gained a very high rating on the New York Times bestseller list.
When Donald Trump became President, the attitude of the media changed immediately. In newsrooms there was a state of shock, followed by an all-out attempt to delegitimize and denigrate the new administration. A war of words began between President Trump and his numerous critics in mainstream television and the press. Trump, in his often crude, over-the-top manner, abused media pundits with provocative language and personal insults, and they responded in kind.
Television and newspaper reporters have a very high view of their role in preserving the American republic. In a way, they are correct. A free press is a bulwark against tyranny. At times reporters cry out that freedom of the press is in danger from “that madman in the White House.” I believe that such fears are entirely overblown. President Trump does not have power to silence the media even should he wish to do so. The courts, the Congress, and the people would never permit it. At the same time, television, radio, and press should not be shielded from criticism. As Bernard Goldberg’s inside story told us, they deserve an honest and continuing critique.
At the intersection of “fake news” and the President’s fiery responses, perhaps we will get a little whiff of the truth.
One last note about “fake news.” During wartime, fake news is not necessarily a bad thing. Consider the misinformation and deceptions involved in planning the D-Day invasion or working on the atomic bomb. As Churchill put it, “Truth is sometimes so precious that it must be surrounded and protected by a bodyguard of lies.”