Editorial: Journalism is essential to democracy

(Photo courtesy of Pixabay)
By The Viewpoints Editorial Board

“The First Amendment is first for a reason,” legendary comedian Dave Chappelle has said.

And there is a reason freedom of the press is one of the foremost rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. Journalism is one of the first lines of defense against wrongdoing in government, society and private industry. The Founding Fathers understood this.

Journalists earned their reputations as the “watchdogs” of democracy throughout the centuries. American muckrakers such as Upton Sinclair have contributed to the idea that, in this country, every wrong should be righted.

But according to Gallup’s 2020 governance poll, Americans’ trust in the media has declined significantly over the past decade — and the chances of recovering that trust look bleak.

We, the Viewpoints editorial board, reiterate that the media is not the enemy of the people, even though President Donald Trump has branded us as such. Still, we acknowledge that criticism of the media is warranted and necessary.

One of the issues here is that media literacy seems to be just as low as media trust in this country. Americans tune into CNN, MSNBC and Fox News daily for an intake of opinion mistaken for news reporting. 

But commentators are not reporters. As consumers are bombarded with national news coverage on politics, protests and COVID-19, they miss the crucial details of what is going on in their own communities. Local print journalism, underfunded and never bailed out, lacks the resources to keep you abreast of the issues that directly affect you on a daily basis.

The average reader also fails to understand that their local paper’s opinion page has little to do with the boots-on-the-ground reporters in the news section.

From day one, these reporters are taught standards, ethics and factual reporting. Whether or not consumers agree with those facts is out of our control. But facts are not up for debate and require no agreement.

Consumers must beware of something called confirmation bias. Much of the public has fallen victim to this fallacy in reasoning, which is characterized by a tendency to seek out and favor information that confirms one’s cemented beliefs. Both sides of the political aisle are guilty of this. It is not completely their fault, though. 

When someone feels they have been lied to, there is a reason for it and we should listen. This is where Trump gets it right. Whether or not he acts in the interest of his supporters rather than his cronies is up for debate, but the president listens to his base.

Still, those who have been swayed into believing the claims of “fake news” — most of which come from the right — should study some history and compare it to the president’s inability to withstand the media’s scrutiny.

Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson, whose fame skyrocketed in 2016 for his criticism of attempts to legislate the use of gender neutral pronouns, admits that the regulation of free speech is one of the first steps taken toward authoritarianism. Although his criticism was aimed at the left, the same criticism should be equally applied to the American right, which happens to be in power right now. 

This is because the matter has nothing to do with left and right, but with democracy and autocracy. Those who distrust the media should be mindful that autocratic leaders throughout history, from both sides of the aisle, silenced and then controlled the media.

During his presidency, Trump has removed reporters from press briefings and attempted to change libel laws. Much of this fuss has been over factual reporting and legitimate questioning by journalists. While Trump is not the first president to remove reporters from around him, his blatant attacks on journalism pose the greatest threat to press freedom in modern American history.

Media scrutiny of the president, or any other politician, does not aim for a political coup. It is conducted in the name of public service. Whether voters with unwavering faith in their politicians believe it or not, every leader should be questioned, investigated and watched closely.

The media is not perfect. But to call it the enemy of the people is incorrect and dangerous to the very principles those screaming “fake news” claim America stands for.