Trump, Fake News And Silencing Free Speech

By David Malcolm

Journalists have a great deal in common with politicians, policemen, tax inspectors and Lindsay Lohan in that everyone loves to hate them. Journalists see themselves as the guardians of information, the purveyors of truth and the advocates of facts. It’s difficult to see how realistic that is, but I certainly disagree with the stereotype of journalists being manipulative, amoral and eager to get a good story even if it’s untrue. As with all things in life, the truth is somewhere in the hazy in-between.

Regardless of that, the media has a job to convey facts as professionally as possible, giving relevant information to the public and occasionally encouraging debate and discussion about hot topics in society. Of course, you could argue that a lot of media is opinionated, driven by personalities and ratings and is heavily biased in favor of one ideology or another. The rating thing is understandable but, as a historian, bias is omnipresent. Show me an unbiased opinion and I’ll show you a cow that doesn’t eat grass. The best thing people can do is either find sources that recognize their bias up-front or, failing that, recognize the bias in the source they use themselves.

The new trend of ‘Fake News’ is disturbing because, at its core, it plays into the stereotype of amoral journalists who prefer good stories to factual information. The irony is that those who cry ‘Fake News’ like the President either peddle in falsehoods and fabrications themselves or prefer to believe outright lies like the birth conspiracy or PizzaGate. In my view, the trend goes further in silencing voices simply because they disagree with us, thus violating an under-rated but highly important aspect of free speech and deepening the irony.

Trump’s spate with NBC and his cries of Fake News are usually reliable rallying calls to his base who love the idea of sticking it to ‘the man’, whoever he is. However, it’s a double-edged sword. The fact that he rails against their stories shows he does indeed consume them. He could ignore it but then how can he complain about the stories they push? It’s a Catch-22 situation but given his record, I doubt Trump will need actual proof to make his claims.

The call for NBC to lose their license is highly irresponsible and is perhaps the first time that a sitting president has called for the suppression of free speech. Perhaps that is hyperbole in itself, but shutting down NBC is not a good thing. Every news network or fired journalist is one less platform for consumers to look for. You might not agree with that platform but it doesn’t matter if you agree. What matters is that you respect their right to speak freely and without fear of being silenced. If you can’t agree to that, then you can’t say you believe in free speech. If you take away one news network, then where do you draw the line?

We have a sitting president who disagrees with the Constitution that he swore to uphold in January. If that isn’t proof of his inability to lead, then what would convince you?

One interesting factor to consider is the effect Trump’s attacks have had on the media. In a way, whether he knows it or not, Trump is benefitting the news site he attacks. He knows that the media will pick up on his Tweets and he can freely question their credibility, but news channels and even comedy shows like Jimmy Kimmel have seen a bump in subscriptions and viewers. Taking a principled stance against Trump is as much as a double-edged sword for them as well, but then again, those who rail against ‘Fake News’ were never on their side. Why preach to the fanatics?

It is even possible that Trump’s attacks on the media might be losing steam. Back at the start of his presidency, assaulting the media packed a real punch but now it is the new norm. It’s almost expected and eventually, people get bored or tired of it. Trump’s base might still cheer at the cry, but elsewhere, the media simply let the attacks roll over it and continue their reports. Trump’s own irrational actions are also getting more tiresome and it must be clear that the old tricks aren’t working as well as they used to.

Like tax men and politicians, the media is a necessary evil in some cases. You might not like it, but it’s always worth remembering that they tailor themselves to the consumer. If they are rewarded for their actions, good or bad, they will keep doing it.

Praise and reward good journalism and discard bad examples. Read widely. Don’t just validate your opinions, put your beliefs to the test and read things that disagree with you. There is incredible value in reading and debating topics you might disagree with. Leave your biases at the door and seek to learn rather than simply agree. Don’t be afraid to discard previous opinions if there’s a better argument to be made. Do your research, encourage others to do the same and check both yourself and the sources.

The very fact that you have the ability to read widely is one of the great advantages of free speech. In many states, it’s either the government line or nothing. The media might have flaws, but it’s always better to have lots of opinions than none at all.

Trump’s attacks on the media are simply an excuse to try and hide his own failings and nothing more. If he doesn’t respect the Consitution, he doesn’t deserve to be President. Free speech is a fundamental right for everyone, not just a select few. It’s what makes America a proud democracy.

Let’s keep it that way.

I'm a historian based in the UK who likes jumping from one thought to next. I love to learn new things and explore other ideas.

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