Regardless of what one thinks about the accuracy of President Trump’s tweets, there was a lot of truth in this one on June 16: “The Fake News Media hates when I use what has turned out to be my very powerful Social Media - over 100 million people! I can go around them.”
Whether or not 100 million distinct individuals follow Trump on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms is factually false. Still, Trump’s larger point, that he can present his message without relying on the mainstream media, is correct, and it’s not limited to him.
In Arkansas, Sens. Tom Cotton and John Boozman haven’t said much to state-based reporters during the contentious health care reform debate, partly because they don’t have to. Boozman for a time relied on a bland statement posted on Facebook. Cotton has been selective in his media appearances, offering few specifics to Arkansas-based reporters and ignoring a well-known liberal columnist while comfortably chatting on air with Hugh Hewitt, a conservative national radio host.
Elected officials have always tried to communicate with the public in ways that portray them in the best possible light. In the past, the best available tool was a double-edged sword – the press, which might portray them positively or might not. Because both sides needed the other, the press and the politicians long have had a relationship that was both cozy and wary.
That’s all changing because elected officials now have other tools, ones they can control. They can spread a message via social media to their supporters, and they can pick and choose from friendly news outlets while attacking mainstream ones as being too liberal.
In other words, politicians will still talk to reporters, but not if they don’t want to. That means sometimes the traditional media will have to share information regardless of where it finds it, even if it means repeating a tweet or Facebook post or quoting a statement made to a radio talk show host.
Trump is right about something else: This does bother some people in the media.
But at the same time, this less cozy arrangement could give journalists more freedom to do what they’re supposed to do: Share the truth. Calling an elected official for a friendly chat is easy. Now that politicians have other avenues, reporters sometimes will have to dig a little more, but they also are more free to call B.S. when warranted.
Political journalists long have wrestled with the idea of what it means to be “objective.” At its worst, the result has been simply to quote spin from both sides, meaning one truth sometimes might be “balanced” by an untruth or, worse, two untruths might cancel each other out. Nobody is served by that kind of lazy reporting except those doing the lying.
This idea of an “objective” press is relatively new, anyway. Newspapers were often bitterly partisan when the country was founded. The politicians didn’t like it then, either, but they still wrote the First Amendment.
For all his criticism of the Fake News Media, Trump actually hasn’t done anything to limit press freedoms. OK, he bad-mouths us, but there’s nothing in the Constitution that says politicians can’t criticize reporters, or that they have to make themselves available for interviews. Attacking the press’s credibility is not an assault on the First Amendment; it’s a reflection of it.
Journalists are still free – in fact, more so now – to fulfill their mission, which is to be “fair and truthful,” not “fair and balanced,” if the latter means “repeating the spin of both sides so we can’t be accused of being biased.”
That’s the way it’s sometimes been done in the past, but the less of that, the better. It’s not just bad journalism; it’s fake news.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.