18 April 2019

Note from Norm: A Free Press Is Not Infallible

The Washington Post has a location on its website called “The Fact Checker” which bills itself as an “….ongoing database of the false or misleading claims made by President Trump since assuming office.”

As of March 31st, 2019, the page blaresIn 801 days, President Trump has made 9,451 false or misleading claims.”

It’s a fascinating exercise, I suppose, from a newspaper which markets itself by stating the “Democracy dies in darkness.”

Founded in 1877 I assume that the Washington Post, in that long history, has probably made at least 9,451 false or misleading claims.

Perhaps more.  Who knows, really.

But, if they did, and if they have, who is The Fact Checker that makes sure the Washington Post isn’t making false or misleading claims?

Or, for that matter, other news outlets, such as CNN, which this past January published a “bombshell” report that President Trump had personally directed his former legal counsel, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress.

It took an unprecedented comment by Special Counsel Robert Mueller refuting the story to get CNN to stop pushing the story, and Democrats to stop using it as their excuse to call for impeachment of the President.

Unsurprisingly, CNN didn’t blare any correction on their website with the same enthusiasm they blared the false accusation.

So, who is The Fact Checker that makes sue that CNN, or Fox News, or any other media outlet is making false or misleading claims?

Throughout my years in public life I have had a great appreciation and respect for the men and women who chose to make journalism their profession.

It is vital that we have a robust, independent 4th Estate that challenges the status quo, holds people in power accountable and provides fact-based information to the American people.

The 1st Amendment of the Constitution reads:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Unlike anywhere in the world the United States commitment to free speech, a free press, and a free people, isn’t just an ideal – it was in our DNA in the birth of our nation.

Yet, the protection of the 1st Amendment of the Constitution afforded to the press does not, by any stretch of the imagination, make it infallible.

Nor does it, nor should it, make it immune from criticism.

Unfortunately, too often, the press in America deflects criticism by suggesting that it is being unfairly attacked.

More onerously, many in the press argue that criticism of the press is tantamount to an attack against the Constitution and therefore, by design, is an effort to undermine the credibility of the 4th Estate.

Even more troubling they suggest, wrongly, that anybody who attacks the media or the press in America is simply using the tactics of authoritarian governments like Russia, China or a host of other non-democratic nations.

I’ve long believed that America’s media has a strong liberal bias.  Studies by the Pew Research Center have shown this to be the case, the former CEO of NPR admits it to be true and my own dealings over the years with one of Minnesota’s largest newspapers leads me to believe it’s true.

A recently released survey conducted by scholars from Arizona State University and Texas A&M University underscores the strong liberal bias of financial journalists.

Their conclusion, according to the Daily Wire, is that “One other thing the researchers found was that the surveyed journalists overwhelmingly described themselves as liberal. Of those surveyed, 17.63% said they were “very liberal,” and 40.84% said they were “somewhat liberal,” for a total of 58.47% saying they lean left.

On the other side of the spectrum, just 0.46% said they were “very conservative” and 3.94% described themselves as “somewhat conservative,” for a total of 4.4% of respondents leaning right. The other 37.12% said they were moderate.”

President Trump, more often than he should, publicly expresses his dissatisfaction with America’s press.  In doing so he can go too far in his criticisms, but he is not wrong to call them out when they are wrong, or when they deliberately slant their coverage.

He believes they have a strong liberal bias – and any fair observer would have to admit that he is, in this regard, correct.

He also believes they should be held accountable for what they write and what they report – and, for the protection of our nation’s democracy and Constitution, I could not agree with him more.

Yet, how the press is held accountable, and how that accountability is made public to the American people, truly is the challenge in this day and age of non-stop news everywhere we look or listen.

Poll after poll shows that American’s level of confidence and trust in the nation’s media is in the basement.

It didn’t happen overnight.  And, it didn’t happen in the Age of Trump.

In 1976 trust in the media, according to Gallup, was at 74 percent.

In 2004 trust in the media was at 44 percent.

In 2016, that percentage dropped to 32 percent.

In 2018, according to Gallup, that percentage climbed back to about 45%.

The website Real Clear Politics has a fascinating tool called Fact Check Review https://www.realclearpolitics.com/fact_check_review/

Its goal is “… to understand how the flagship fact-checking organizations operate in practice, from their claim and verification sourcing to their topical focus to just what even constitutes a “fact.”

The fact is, facts matter.

Those in politics, those in business and those in the media must be held accountable to the facts.

If they are wrong, they should be compelled to correct their mistakes.

If they are wrong on the small things, and they don’t feel obligated to correct them, when they are wrong on the big things, they won’t be any more inclined to correct them, either.

There is no upside to America’s democracy to demonizing our nation’s press.

They are not the “enemy” of America or the American people.

But, neither, is there an upside to believing the press is infallible and immune from criticism for the mistakes it makes.

Democracy does, indeed, die in the darkness.

But Democracy also dies when the credibility of institutions central to protecting its survival dies in the darkness.