When Montana Republican candidate for Congress Greg Gianforte assaulted Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs yesterday, it was the latest in the not so subtle GOP campaign against an independent press. Here’s from a Guardian release:
“Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna, field producer Faith Mangan and photographer Keith Railey witnessed the incident at Gianforte’s campaign headquarters in Montana, according to an account published on the Fox News website. After Jacobs asked Gianforte his question, Acuna wrote: ‘Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him.’
‘Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the man, as he moved on top the reporter and began yelling something to the effect of “I’m sick and tired of this!”… To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte, who left the area after giving statements to local sheriff’s deputies.'”
You will recall that Donald Trump on numerous occasions has called the press “the enemy of the State.” See this New York Times report from February 17 when Trump tweeted: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @CNN, @NBCNews and many more) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people. Sick.”
And you will recall numerous other incidents, from Sean Spicer denying selected press reporters access to his briefings, to Secretary of State Tillerson, and Trump, himself, denying American media access to matters covered by the foreign press.
The First Amendment protection for freedom of the press is exceedingly precarious – the press is a natural target for any government sensitive to criticism. See for example the Alien and Sedition Act signed into law by none less than John Adams, which “allowed the president to imprison and deport non-citizens who were deemed dangerous (Alien Friends Act of 1798) or who were from a hostile nation (Alien Enemy Act of 1798), and criminalized making false statements that were critical of the federal government.” Those provisions criminalizing false statements critical of the government were subsequently repealed and assumed by later scholars – but never held by the Supreme Court – to be unconstitutional. The problem, of course, is that one person’s “false statement” can easily be another’s considered dissent. To chill dissent in a democratic society is to undermine the debate, the dissemination of ideas, and the access to information that is crucial to the government functioning on behalf of the people.
Mainstream media is also under attack from a different source, from a coordinated campaign financed by right-wing moguls such as Rupert Murdoch, funding media news centers to disseminate disinformation. Fox News, Breitbart, and right-wing radio talk shows, among others, have created and disseminated “news” from an alternate reality – one divorced from science, or responsible reporting, where concocted conspiracies concerning Obama’s birth certificate, and treasonous wrongdoing at Benghazi, and undocumented felonies relating to emails of a Democratic candidate for President dominate the agenda.
You see the crux of the problem here? Obviously wide-spread disinformation – slanted for political purposes – undermines the goal of an intelligent and informed electorate every bit as much as does direct information suppression. Yet, in a capitalistic society, those who have accumulated wealth will inevitably have greater access to media to spread propaganda reflecting their interests.
The success of the Trump disinformation campaign in the 2016 election convinces me that these problems must be addressed if a vital democracy is to be preserved. I recommend the following:
Reinstatement by the Federal Communications Commission of a Fairness Doctrine holding all broadcasters accountable for presenting reasonably balanced news reports. Such a doctrine would subject licensees to loss of license for the conduct of a disinformation campaign. Such a loss of license, however, would require a finding of media abuse by an independent – nonpartisan panel.
Reinvigorating of anti-trust restrictions on control of media outlets. Reasonable regulations and review are necessary to ensure that news accounts cannot be monopolized by any part of the political spectrum, and that localized outlets are available and successful.
Renewed support for public broadcasting and renewed consideration of avenues to ensure its editorial independence.
Encouragement of media access and broadcasting avenues for foreign media to increase the breadth of spectrum available to the public.
Let me recognize that, in treading in the First Amendment arena, I’m opining in an area of substantial legal nuance. You might consider for a First Amendment primer, Thomas I. Emerson’s The System of Freedom of Expression. Emerson will give you a great review of the subject and its complexities. Unfortunately, in our current society, concern for legal niceties seems to be on the wane. Addressing Emerson’s depth of concerns will have to wait another day.
In the meantime, our current state of the press, broadcasting, and government efforts at suppression of dissent does not pass a smell test. Things won’t change for the better unless we recognized the smell and do something about it.