Wrong. Good idea – if it works both ways. Missed the point

newseum-inaug-330In order: Wrong. Good idea — if it works both ways. Missed the point. And, wrong.

Trump administration senior advisers Stephen Bannon and Kellyanne Conway each vented — again — against “the media” in the midst of a turbulent week. Their comments are worth parsing.

Bannon, not long departed from the perpetually vocal, ultra-conservative Breitbart News online site, said on Jan. 25 that “the media should … keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” In that rare news interview, he also called the news media “the opposition.”

And then there’s Conway, complaining to “Fox News Sunday” on Jan. 29 that “Not one network person has been let go. Not one silly political analyst and pundit who talked smack all day long about Donald Trump has been let go…”

More than two centuries ago, using antiquated libel laws aimed at suppressing any criticism of the crown, the Colonial representatives of King George III tried to silence those who would speak or write in opposition to England’s rulers and Parliament’s censorious laws. We all know how that turned out.

Bannon’s attempt to both denigrate and provoke journalists was a historical echo of that long-ago attempt to squelch those who might be critical in any way — and is just as wrong.

Madison, Jefferson, Washington and their founding colleagues, along with the American people, 225 years ago, gave counter instructions to journalists and to this nation in that regard. Nothing in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights suggests, let alone requires, a silent and respectful press — or for that matter, a press that is an ally or enemy.

We all get to choose what we write and say. Journalists. You. Me. Bannon and Conway. And nobody — including the president or his representatives — should try to silence those voices.

Good idea on the “listen” part — if it works both ways. Those who work in the Trump administration are now being paid to do just that, the better to hear from the real “boss,” American citizens of all political positions and views.

Listening is always good advice for journalists, too. Whether the news operation is online, mainstream, old-school or new tech. Get out and listen, especially to what a little less than one-half of the electorate was saying in voting for Donald Trump.

Historically, one strength of the news media in this nation has been that it listened, looked into, then spoke out on behalf of fellow citizens underrepresented in the halls of power. Consider the “muckrakers” of a century ago, investigating, interviewing, then writing about public health failures, government corruption and inhumane working and living conditions. Those writers and their publications didn’t “shut up” even when challenged by government leaders or the economic oligarchs of their era, and those journalists changed society for the better.

Missed the point in labeling all of the media as “opposition” — in a number of ways.

Bannon lumped all journalists into “the media.” Sorry, there are just too many variations, in too many ways, with too many points of view, to be a single target. Fox News is not MSNBC, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is not CNN, and The New York Times is not The Wall Street Journal… and hundreds more such examples.

Such labeling speaks to an erroneous stance. In the early years of the nation, most publications were owned by or aligned with a political candidate or party. And even as 20th century journalism pushed the idea of “objectivity,” a great many newspapers carried the tag “Democrat” or “Republican” in their nameplates or on editorial views.

And the label misses the very point of an independent press — to never be a lapdog and always be a watchdog. A free and independent press ought to always be in the posture of questioning, testing, even challenging those in power. That’s not partisan — it’s a constitutional role supported by the nation’s founders even as they endured insults far worse than Bannon or Trump has ever faced (or delivered).

As to Conway’s points: Faulty election forecasts are hardly limited to this election – recall the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline in 1948 in what was then the Chicago Daily Tribune – and  even Trump’s campaign doubted the outcome until late on Election Night. But while I doubt the nation’s founders used the phrase “talked smack,” these were the very people who hoisted and burned effigies of King George’s governors and tax collectors before the American Revolution. They got the meaning of “talking smack” in a very real way — and later chose to protect it in the strongest possible manner, with the Bill of Rights.

An election victory in the United States is not a “winner take all” event, in which the rule of law and long-standing practices can be dismissed at a whim or for tactical reasons. At best, winning an election means a temporary lease on space and policy leadership. Campaign managers and advisers are by definition partisan. They are responsible to their candidate. Public officials have a responsibility to act in the best interests of all citizens, taking all interests into consideration. And sometimes taking acerbic, tough questions and harsh — even unfair — criticisms come with the turf.

Let’s put that more directly, with a First Amendment focus: Even a key to the door of the White House is not a license to tell anyone, in a nation that so values free speech and free press rights, to “shut up” or to stop “talking smack.”

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. 

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