Media needs to quit constantly whining about Trump
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The New York Times is still publishing. CNN is still broadcasting. The First Amendment remains in place. In spite of rhetorical beatings from the Trump administration, the press is free to print and broadcast as it likes. The press will remain free throughout the Trump presidency, and hopefully, for centuries to come. As long as reporters publish and broadcasters transmit, the free press is functioning. 

The frequent attacks on the press by Trump and his surrogates are unnecessary, distracting, and boorish. The press, for its part, has fussed about every anti-press barrage from the Trump world. To listen to the media wail about this treatment, one would think Trump advisor Steve Bannon commandeered the CNN anchor desk and hauled Wolf Blitzer away. 

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The press exploded in self-righteous indignation when Trump press secretary Sean Spicer recently excluded the New York Times, Politico, and several other outlets from a press gaggle. Not a formal press briefing, just one of the occasional informal chats that White House spokesmen have done for years.

 

CNN media reporter Dylan Byers called the exclusion “extremely troubling,” saying “that does not speak of American democracy.” CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter expressed concern the Trump administration was using its power to “squash coverage.” Never mind that what little Spicer had to say was reported by sources attending the gaggle.

The media acted victimized just because Trump won’t attend the upcoming White House Correspondents Association dinner. That’s hardly an affront to the First Amendment.

Democratic politicians predictably joined the outcry against Trump. Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinTrump has exposed Democratic hypocrisy on prison reform House easily passes prison reform bill backed by Trump This week: House GOP regroups after farm bill failure MORE (D-Ill.) told a conference of media executives that Trump’s criticisms threatened “the survival of journalism as a critical pillar of democracy.” Durbin said Trump’s attacks on the media were similar to those seen in authoritarian states like Russia and Cuba. Durbin failed to mention those nations have no First Amendment protections for the press and actually imprison political adversaries, including reporters.

In the eyes of the Constitution, reporters are the same as average citizens. All Americans have the same free press rights. The press establishment does, indeed, act as surrogate for the public and as watchdog of the government. But when reporters expect special treatment or assume that government officials can’t push back in the fight for controlling the public agenda, the realm of press exceptionalism or even press elitism is reached.

The press plays an essential role in democracy, but news outlets should not be considered sacred cows. The press relishes its role of government watchdog, but should recognize its actions are also to be watchdogged by government officials and the citizenry. Nothing in the First Amendment suggests the press is exempt from criticism, even by powerful government officials.

Trump has, indeed, exploited public distrust of the media for his own purposes. But press credibility has been declining for twenty years, long before Trump came down the Trump Tower elevator to announce his candidacy. Trump’s media bashing would be ignored if citizens had greater confidence in the press.

Even now, the media don’t fare well in the public’s eyes. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that 51 percent of Americans think the media are “too critical” of Trump and only six percent think the media haven’t been critical enough. The rest believe the coverage is objective enough. Another study cited in The Hill showed that only three percent of Trump stories aired on the CBS and NBC evening newscasts had a positive tone. Expect Trump to keep riding his anti-media horse.

The late Justice Potter Stewart was one of the Supreme Court’s staunchest supporters of the First Amendment. In a 1974 speech at Yale, Stewart said, “So far as the Constitution goes, the autonomous press may publish what it knows, and may seek to learn what it can.”

But, he said, the press has “no constitutional right to have access to particular government information,” and “The press cannot expect from the Constitution any guarantee that it will succeed.” With regard to the press battling the government, Stewart concluded the Constitution “…establishes the contest, not its resolution.” Spicer is surely a fan of Justice Stewart.

The Trump administration will provide an extreme test of the press’ relationship with government, but it is time for the media to engage the contest with professionalism and tough, accurate reporting. Whining is unbecoming the Fourth Estate. 

Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a professor of communication at DePauw University.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.