Media Distortions Undermine Benefits of Free Press

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Article by Cory Wilson

Posted December 7, 2016
"Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe." – Abraham Lincoln

The First Amendment guarantees that "Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…" A free press is foundational to many of the other freedoms we enjoy as Americans.

The guarantee arose in response to laws in Great Britain that allowed for prosecution of statements published against the government, under a theory of sedition. The Founders wanted to make clear that the government could not enact laws that would curtail criticism of those people whom the people elected to be their representatives.

Congress may not have to worry with a law abridging freedom of the press. That freedom is being willingly ceded by the very media that are supposed to be its most vigorous practitioners.

In 1992, about 90% of the DC press corps voted for Clinton over Bush. Their worldview is vastly more liberal than the public's. Having one ideological view so overwhelmingly represented of course slants coverage.

Perhaps in days past, the slant was more unintended. In the past few years, the mainstream media are not even bashful about it. The "legacy" newspapers and television networks have largely abdicated their vital function of speaking truth to power. They are no longer "equal opportunity SOBs," challenging both sides to accountability. Instead, the media have joined one team to work actively against the other. Democrats get a free pass; Republicans get "accountability."

The short term implications of the media's dive into the tank for the left are more obvious; the long term, more frightening. And the problem is not that the media are liberal while many more Americans self-identify as conservative. It is that the media are picking the winners (or maybe the losers). It would be as problematic for our constitutional system if the media all lined up to cheer for the right. Rather than reporting news, the media are "shaping" facts to lead the public to vote as they "should."

There are many blatant examples of media tampering with news to fit a leftist "narrative." There was Dan Rather's 2004 "gotcha" about George W. Bush's National Guard service (which relied on documents created by word processing software, which did not exist in 1973 when W. was actually in the Guard). Barack Obama was hardly questioned by an adoring media in 2008, though there was (and is) plenty in Obama's background that would raise red flags for a conservative candidate. Some more balanced vetting would have been useful.

But instead of accountability, what we have gotten is largely whitewash, and "gotcha" attacks on Mitt Romney and Republicans. MSNBC has been caught twice this year blatantly doctoring footage of Mitt Romney to change the context of what Romney actually said into something that made Romney appear out of touch, or an inept campaigner.

But it isn't just MSNBC, which hardly passes for a network. For weeks, polls have been almost fraudulently depicted to prove beyond any doubt that Obama has already defeated Romney. Despite data showing significant oversampling of Democrats (and Romney winning Independents in those same polls), the media have relentlessly pushed the story that Romney's chances are over. Why hasn't the media focused on Obama's underperformance? Under 50% as an incumbent usually means that the incumbent is in big trouble. Crickets chirp. The real-time reaction to the first presidential debate tells it all: Stunned journalists could not believe how badly President Obama was routed by a more presidential Romney. Rather than report the news, they felt obliged to explain Obama's performance, and in many cases make his "points" for him.

And it isn't just politics. This spring, NBC News was caught editing the 911 audiotape in the Trayvon Martin case, cutting out material statements made by accused George Zimmerman, and changing the entire slant of the story in the process. NBC News launched an "internal investigation," but the irresponsible journalism could have had a real impact on a criminal investigation and trial.

The longer-term impact of media partisanship is even more troubling. A press that is reduced to serving as a discredited arm of the Democrat party is dangerous for sustaining our democracy.

Yet that is exactly the public's perception of the media, and it seems to be growing. A September Gallup poll found that 60% of respondents—an all-time high—had "little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly." In a recent poll by Pew, the New York Times' "believability" dropped 13 points from 2004 to only 49%. The Gray Lady is seen by most Americans as senile.

Most people have abandoned the mainstream media and are increasingly filtering their news to validate their own beliefs. The "free" press is contributing to our country's polarization. And, if the public tunes out, how will the public stay informed?

Democratic pollster Pat Caddell says that the media have crossed a "dangerous" threshold and are now sitting on stories and distorting facts to support the government (well, the Obama Administration). Think about the coverage on Libya, Afghanistan, and Fast and Furious. Can anyone seriously contend that these would be downplayed if the President was a Republican, or named Bush? Mainstream journalists have spent more energy coordinating their reporting to catch Romney in a "gaffe" than on making the Administration explain its keystone cops response to a 9/11 terror attack. And so on.

Late journalist Charles Kurault put it right: "The one thing that's worse than hearing about all that violence and all that bad news on television is not being permitted to hear it."

The late James Madison (who wrote the First Amendment) was more explicit: "A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with power which knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both."

Bet you won't hear that on NBC.

Cory T. Wilson manages the Jackson Office of Heidelberg Steinberger Colmer & Burrow. Cory is a member of the Capital Area Bar Association. To contact him, email cwilson@hscbpa.com.