President Donald Trump is famous—or infamous—for calling certain mainstream news outlets the “fake news media” and even the “enemy of the people.” Trump’s tenacious criticism of major news outlets is one of the defining features of his presidency.
Few things have upset spokespersons for these outlets more than this political upstart calling them illegitimate. They tell us, though, that their concern is less for their own reputations particularly and more for the freedom of the press generally and the welfare of our republican institutions.
Fair enough. Indeed, Alexis de Tocqueville, famed author of “Democracy in America,” remarked that, in the United States, “the sovereignty of the people and freedom of the press” are “two entirely correlative things.”
With righteous indignation, Jim Acosta, CNN’s White House correspondent, once asked Trump: “Aren’t you concerned, sir, that you are undermining the people’s faith in the First Amendment, freedom of the press—the press in this country—when you call stories you don’t like ‘fake news’? … When you call it ‘fake news,’ you’re undermining confidence in our news media.”
But, wait a minute. Aren’t we conflating two different things here? Since when are mainstream “news media” outlets and “the press” the same thing? The president has always directed his ire at a few major media outlets—CNN, the New York Times, ABC, NBC, and CBS.
These mainstream media outlets have come to assume a monopoly of legitimacy regarding what constitutes authoritative news only since the advent of radio and television communication technologies. In truth, though, the First Amendment guarantees freedom for all Americans to publish their political opinions in the public square, in any format.
New Technologies, New Political Conditions
In the 21st century, we’re experiencing a tectonic shift in communication technologies that’s creating a correlative shift in how we do politics in this country. Now, anyone with an internet connection can post a blog, and anyone with a microphone can publish a podcast.
This change, though, isn’t leading us into entirely new, uncharted waters. Oddly enough, it’s taking us back to a condition similar to that of the 19th century, when newspapers were more openly partisan but also more plentiful.
Of course, this new condition poses certain new difficulties, but also certain new opportunities. For example, although it may seem harder to know whose opinion to trust these days, at least we aren’t beholden to an oligarchy of self-authorized gatekeepers who cloak their biases with confident claims of objectivity.
The president’s attacks on mainstream media outlets shouldn’t be seen as an attack on “the press,” but as a criticism of their unjustified monopoly of legitimacy as authorities on political opinion and interpreters of the news.
In fact, by pointing out bias in the mainstream media, the president is helping to create space for other media outlets to report otherwise under-reported news. In this way, the president is actually protecting the freedom of the press.
Freedom of the Press, Revival of Serious Journalism
Tocqueville wrote to his French audience, “The number of periodical or semi-periodical writings in the United States passes beyond all belief.”
Newspapers were so prolific in the United States, he believed, because printers weren’t required to obtain licenses from the government to operate. Of course, that condition changed with the advent of radio and television and the Federal Communications Commission.
When Tocqueville was writing in the 1830s, there were already about 1,200 newspapers in circulation in the United States. Thirty years later, in 1860, that number more than doubled to 3,000. By 1890, that number quadrupled to 12,000. In other words, for most of our history, Americans have had more than just a few media outlets from which to get their news.
Tocqueville noticed that so great a number of newspapers guaranteed an equally great number of perspectives, so that, collectively, newspapers couldn’t “establish great currents of opinion.” How different from the monolith of opinion that often emanates from the mainstream media today.
Further, Tocqueville noted that “this dividing of the strength of the press” in the 1830s had two other politically salutary effects. We’re seeing a revival of both today.
First, “the creation of a newspaper being an easy thing,” Tocqueville noticed, “everyone can take it on.” In the digital age of the 21st century, through the agency of social media, podcasts, blogs, and other means of independent journalism, we’re seeing a return to this condition of easy access to publishing.
Second, Tocqueville observed that “competition makes a newspaper unable to hope for very great profits, which prevents those with great industrial capabilities from meddling in these sorts of undertakings.” We who have grown up in the age of the 24-hour news cycle have witnessed the consequences of the industrialization of journalism.
The marriage between journalism and advertising corporatism has birthed the amalgamation perhaps best described as “infotainment.” Newsrooms often resemble gameshow studios. Are we not entertained?
Most of the independent media enterprises that have been successful recently are, it’s true, more partisan, but their success is often a product of the seriousness with which they address their subject. We may even hope that, with the corporate influence somewhat neutralized, we’ll see a revival of rigor and seriousness in the field of journalism.
I’ve argued elsewhere that the media are the guardians of public opinion and that, as citizens in a republic, we ourselves must guard the guardians. In that endeavor, we must understand the new conditions our technologies have wrought, both the difficulties and the opportunities.
Tocqueville called it nothing less than an “axiom of political science” in the United States “that the sole means of neutralizing the effects of newspapers is to multiply their number.” We ought to remember that point, as we witness the dissolution of the monopoly on authoritative opinion that the mainstream media has enjoyed for so many decades.
Further, it ought to give us hope that the freedom of the press is stronger than ever. Let us use our freedom well.
Clifford Humphrey is originally from Warm Springs, Georgia. Currently, he is a doctoral candidate in politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @cphumphrey.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.