by Matthew M. Hausman, J.D.
The press has been having a field day with Donald Trump since before his inauguration, magnifying every misstep, exploiting every controversy, and packaging its indignation as straight news in the apparent belief that its job is to delegitimize his presidency. Granted, Mr. Trump’s unfiltered use of twitter, penchant for audacious statements, and tendency to discredit rather than dialogue have provided his critics with plenty of ammunition; but the one constant seems to be the media’s refusal to forgive any miscues or consider reasonable interpretations for any of his statements or policies. Its relentless treatment of Trump contrasts with the fawning sycophancy it displayed during the administration of his predecessor, who was spared from any probing scrutiny or objective criticism.
The media failed in its constitutional mission by not covering Obama’s administration critically, and continues to fail as it behaves like an opposition party against Trump.
Even before Mr. Trump’s inauguration, mainstream reporters strained to brand his incoming administration as bigoted and racist. They attempted, for example, to characterize his Chief White House Strategist, Steve Bannon, as an anti-Semite – despite Bannon’s public record of support for Israel and opposition to anti-Jewish boycotts. Though some progressive Jewish organizations initially echoed these sentiments, they retracted their comments after prominent liberals like Alan Dershowitz stated there was nothing in Bannon’s background to suggest he bore any animosity towards Jews or Israel.
If mainstream journalists and commentators were honestly troubled by the scourge of anti-Semitism after Trump’s election, one must wonder why they expressed no concern during Mr. Obama’s eight years in office. Why did they ignore Obama’s longstanding relationships with Israel bashers and progressive anti-Semites? Where was their outrage over the Jew-hatred on display in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (“BDS”) and Israel Apartheid Week movements? Or the left’s use of repugnant stereotypes to demonize Israel and her supporters? Or the anti-Jewish rhetoric and intimidation that have become commonplace on North American college campuses?
The media’s faux indignation over allegations of anti-Semitism was matched only by its fatuous efforts to characterize Trump as a fascist by rewriting history. More than a few liberal pundits have likened Trump and his supporters to Nazis, claiming that just like Hitler, Trump was elected by a radical and extreme electorate. Such comparisons show profound ignorance, however, in that (a) Hitler was never elected to office (he was appointed chancellor after losing the only election he ever ran), and (b) many of Trump’s views are not so different from the mainstream, as indicated by a number public opinion polls.
Ironically, it was American progressives who viewed fascism favorably in the 1930s because of their shared affinity for secular statism and social engineering.
The press represents itself as the innocent victim of a Trump vendetta and counts on his outrageousness to validate the narrative of its victimhood. Though he might be combative, it does not mean his distrust of the media is unwarranted – particularly given its role in fomenting hysteria against him and blurring the line between editorial and fact. The coverage regarding his first executive order imposing a temporary travel ban was indicative of reporters who engage in political activism instead of objective reportage.
On January 27, 2017, Trump signed Executive Order 13769, entitled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” (since blocked in court), which would have imposed a ninety-day ban on travel from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, seven high-terror nations as identified by the Obama administration. Hysterical media critics dubbed it a “Muslim ban” and proclaimed it unlawful, though the President has both constitutional and statutory authority to promulgate such orders, and extraterritorial foreign nationals have no rights under the U.S. Constitution.
The executive order could not have effectuated a Muslim ban as media reports claimed, however, because it applied to only seven out of fifty-seven Muslim nations. The litmus test for its application was not religion or ethnicity, but origination from any of the seven nations identified. Nevertheless, opponents claimed the ban’s intent was to target Islam, with some scaremongers characterizing it as the first step toward confining Muslims to internment camps. Such claims were outrageous, particularly considering the Obama administration imposed a six-month travel ban with the approval of Congressional Democrats in 2011. Where were the protests then?
Though the rollout of Executive Order 13769 was flawed and its scope too broad (it would have included resident aliens with green cards), its purpose was to prevent terrorism and protect the homeland – priorities that are clearly within the president’s purview. However, Trump’s naysayers engaged in disinformation when they said he had no authority to sign the order or that no other president had ever done so.
Taking a page from Obama’s playbook, some opponents of the travel ban attempted to obfuscate the connection between terrorism and radical Islam and minimized the impact of terrorist attacks on American soil. Although Press Secretary Sean Spicer was excoriated for claiming that terrorism in the U.S. has been underreported, he had a valid point considering the media’s history of calling it workplace violence, domestic assault, or generic extremism.
Over the past few years, journalists have described the Orlando massacre as an anti-gay hate crime and the San Bernardino and Fort Hood shootings as workplace violence. They labeled beheadings and murders of Coptic Christians, apostate Muslims, and Jews in Oklahoma, New Jersey, Texas and Massachusetts as criminal assaults, workplace violence, or violent extremism; and they continue to describe honor killings of Muslim women as domestic crimes. Though Obama’s policy of apologetics is fading in the rearview, the media continues to call terrorism anything but what it is.
Establishment reporters are upset over Mr. Trump’s treatment of the White House media corps and his refusal to follow traditional press conference protocol, and they claim he threatens free speech with his confrontational demeanor and preoccupation with fake news. However, Trump is not the first president to have a contentious relationship with the media; Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln were as combative with the press in their time as Trump is today.
And a president’s challenge to media credibility is not the same as government restraint of speech. Regardless of how Trump questions the media’s excesses or impugns its veracity, he is not restricting reporters from writing what they want. Consequently, he is trampling nobody’s First Amendment rights.
Those who claim otherwise sounded no alarm when Obama marginalized conservative outlets, especially Fox News, or when his Justice Department threatened reporters with prosecution. The use of government offices during his administration to monitor and intimidate the press really did implicate the First Amendment.
None of this should be surprising given the evolution of journalism since the 1960s, when reporters began to inject personal sensibilities into the news and infuse their reporting with a political point of view. The truth is that journalism was never completely objective because writers have always had opinions. Still, reporters traditionally strove to suspend their own subjectivity. With the advent of the “New Journalism,” however, it became acceptable to displace objectivity with literary artifice. Though this trend was soon jettisoned as an acceptable journalistic standard, it left behind a legacy of editorial tolerance for writers whose reporting reflected their political views – particularly when they promoted liberal politicians, advocated progressive policies, or disparaged Israel.
Through the First Amendment, America’s founding fathers envisioned a free citizen press that would be independent of government. They did not anticipate a factional media that would actively promote some administrations and undermine others. The media’s embarrassingly soft coverage of the Obama White House and adversarial treatment of Trump’s administration show the polar extremes of its partisan dysfunction.
There’s nothing wrong with criticizing the president and reporting his gaffes, or with publishing opinion and commentary on the editorial page. Straight news, however, should be reported without venom or spleen. The media failed in its constitutional mission by not covering Obama’s administration critically, and continues to fail as it behaves like an opposition party against Trump.
Reporters should never seek to placate their subjects, but neither should they present tendentious advocacy as hard news or neutral analysis. When public opinion surveys show that many people find Mr. Trump’s tweets more credible sources of information than traditional news outlets, the media should realize it has a problem and correct its behavior accordingly – for the proper functioning of society if not for the sake of its own integrity.
Matthew M. Hausman, J.D. is a trial attorney and writer who lives and works in Connecticut. A former journalist, Mr. Hausman continues to write on a variety of topics, including science, health and medicine, Jewish issues and foreign affairs, and has been a legal affairs columnist for a number of publications.
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