Deference to Media Waning Around the World

August 12, 2018 Updated: August 13, 2018    

“Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel” credited to former Indiana Congressman Charles Bruce Brownson circa 1964. 

It used to be vested wisdom that getting into a fight with the media was a sure losing cause. And never was that truism truer than during the 1972-74 Watergate political controversy when Washington Post investigative reporters in effect destroyed the Nixon presidency, forcing his resignation. It seemed at the time that a quarter of liberal arts graduates wanted to be journalists.

Media power was real power, and the sobriquet for the media as “The Fourth Estate” recognized its implicit power.

Media power appeared to be growing globally, prompted by expanding democracy throughout Latin America and, particularly, in the shard states spun off from the former Soviet Union and in Russia as well. Globally, the media exercised its new power and privilege by seeking to right longstanding wrongs and “afflict the comfortable.”

The comfortable were not amused and crusading journalists began to pay the price—by being killed and/or imprisoned.

Moreover, the internet has changed everything regarding media power and information control. Depending on who’s counting when, President Trump is the most “followed” world leader with upward of 60 million followers. In contrast, as of Sept. 29, 2017, the Wall Street Journal had 1,180,460 subscribers; the New York Times, 597, 955; the Los Angeles Times 431,076; and the Washington Post 313,156.

Newspapers may still buy ink by the barrel, but political figures have internet electrons by the universe.

And the rise of a fourth TV channel (Fox), the emergence of talk radio, the presence of a plethora of social media information conveyers (Facebook, Twitter, U-tube), many of which are “conservative” in attitude has devastated mainstream media (MSM). These alternative sources of information—and counter comment—have both slashed MSM’s advertising income (resulting in staff reductions) and reduced its political impact.

Consequently, politicians no longer display the same respect, deference, or fear toward the media as in previous eras. Instead, they are striking back with a level of vituperation and counterattacks that has left media sputtering with indignation and anger. And renewed fury in attack.

Media has clearly demonstrated that it is better at “dishing it out” than taking it. They have gone nuclear ballistic over being labeled an “enemy of the people.” In response, they castigate opponents as “hacks” in “tame media” with “little or no pretense at objectivity or impartiality.”  One fetish is counting the number of “lies” attributed to the president (roundly ignored by all but the already hostile).

View of the news is polarized. In the United States, trust in media hit an all time low in September 2016 when only 32 percent believed it could trust the media to “report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.” In May 2017, 34 percent of Democrats but only 11 percent of Republicans believed information from national news organizations was trustworthy.

In August 2017, 70 percent of Republicans trusted the President more than the New York Times, Washington Post, or CNN. Hence, any riposte that a media report is “false news” is seen as credible—and a May 2017 Harvard-Harris poll reinforced this attitude noting that 65 percent of voters believed there is an abundance of “fake news.”

But the United States has a long history of scurrilous media. Thomas Jefferson was charged with having a black mistress. Abraham Lincoln was described as a “shambling ape.” Grover Cleveland accused of fathering an illegitimate child. And Hearst “yellow journalism” whipped up war with Spain over the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor.

Nor by any means is the United States alone in skepticism about the press. Countries with leaders already having dictatorial or semi-dictatorial power now have a new cudgel against the media: “fake news.” Newspapers in some countries have long histories as organs for one political party/ideology or another; party faithful get their twisted “news” from these sources.

And there is no question that life has gotten more challenging for a journalist. Journalists are not being killed in the numbers of previous years: 85 (2006); 88 (2007); 87 (2012); and 81 (2015)—such killings declined sharply last year to 50. But a historic high of seven were killed in Mexico in 2017. Reporters without Borders, however, noted a record 262 imprisoned. Turkey, China, and Egypt accounted for 51 percent of such.

Being a U.S. journalist is not as dangerous as being a police officer (46 shot/killed in 2017), but media colleagues assure that their deaths are well covered.

David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as an adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.