A long history of political science literature teaches us that Americans tend to take cues from elites — that is, as a natural byproduct of being unable to thoroughly analyze each issue they face, they accept the conclusions of those they respect. Perhaps no where is this more true than in politics, a complicated subject made ever more difficult by the nuances of legislation.
Unfortunately, Americans also base their belief in political norms on the thoughts of such elites. Political norms — those that adhere our society to liberal democratic values — must be taught and passed from generation to generation. They should not be eroded on the basis of one rather rogue leader. But that idealized notion does not exist. Instead, when charlatans such as Donald J. Trump routinely attack our norms and institutions, Americans follow suit.
Losing Faith in the Free Press
Faith in the free press has suffered under Trump’s baseless and incorrect bashing of the so-called “fake news,” a concept he clearly does not understand. A recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll found that a full 46 percent of all voters think the media makes up stories about Trump and his administration. This includes some 76 percent of Republicans (only 11 percent of Republicans don’t think the media makes up stories) and 44 percent of proclaimed independents.
The media, of course, does not make up stories about Trump and his administration. All stories from reputable news sources go through a thorough vetting process and multiple rounds of verification, especially if sources refuse to go on the record. Of course, Trump himself cannot actually point to a story he finds fake. Neither can his supporters.
Just 37 percent of voters believe that the media does not fabricate stories. Fewer than four in ten Americans trust our press enough to believe in the veracity of all they publish. And yet they have no reason to believe the opposite, except that Donald Trump — and, shamefully, other elites within the Republican Party — have latched onto this false idea that any report that criticizes or disparages the president in any way must be fake news, and called such for millions of gullible voters to believe.
It doesn’t stop there. Nearly three in ten Americans — 28 percent — think the government should have the power to revoke broadcast licenses of major news organizations the government says make up stories. Put another way, 28 percent of all voters think the government should define what constitutes “fake news” and then act to ban its creators from broadcasting.
Remember that the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom…of the press.”
Blinded by Partisanship
Unsurprisingly, it’s primarily Republicans who support these proposals because it’s a Republican (or somehow who calls himself a Republican when he’s really a self-serving demagogue running on the Trump First platform) making the outrageous and blatantly anti-First Amendment claims.
We need to step back and realize that we’re letting an illiberal actor transform our beliefs in needed democratic institutions. The free press keeps us informed. It holds power accountable by helping voters understand the issues facing the country, the ongoings of Congress and the executive, and providing a transparent government where we can analyze for ourselves the actions of elected leaders rather than relying on government-controlled messaging.
A free society needs a vibrant press. It’s the press that uncovers abuses of powers — without a dedicated press, Watergate would have gone unpunished. Sexual abuse and harassment stories would never come to light. Administration officials would still be spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to fly from DC to New York on chartered planes. We wouldn’t know what’s happening because power tends to corrupt and that corruption is defended through lies.
Imagine a society in which Donald Trump’s 1,000+ lies went unchecked and unchallenged, that an unknowing populace — ignorant for the lack of government critique — simply believed all he said because they had no basis on which to form doubt.
Democracies need the press because democracies need informed voters. That’s precisely what Trump’s attacking through his rhetorical attacks on the press, eroding support among the media and causing many — especially his supporters — to doubt everything said by certain outlets. That’s not how a free, democratic society lasts. We must cherish the free press regardless of what our political leaders say.
As Thomas Jefferson said, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”