United States / The Press

Explaining the “Failing” Fourth Estate

Post-truth, fake news, the failing New York Times, very fake news, and “democracy dies in darkness.” Politics has never been more obsessed with the medium through which it is reported. Since President Trump took the oath of office on the west front of the Capitol, periphery of his right eye trained on the sparse Washington Mall that lay before him, he has drawn the battle lines clearly. President Trump is not afraid to wrestle with the press for control of the factual narrative. His administration seeks to discredit the press completely; entire stories are disregarded as lies. The press has rebuked forcefully to keep the institution afloat—there is no world where some independent organizations can be labeled “fake” and others retain their repute. But President Trump’s propagandistic press bashing remains potent because it taps into a real sentiment among Americans: we distrust the mainstream media.

In September, Gallup reported that the percentage of Americans who trust the news media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” had fallen to thirty-two percent, the lowest level since Gallup began asking the question in 1972. To explain the decline, it may be helpful to start forty-one years ago, in 1976, when a record-high seventy-two percent of Americans responded affirmatively to the same question. In the years leading up to 1976, the press established itself as a serious check on the government with a series of landmark exposés. In 1969, Times reporter Seymour Hersh revealed that the federal government had covered up the massacre of hundreds of civilians in My Lai, a village in southern Vietnam. In 1971, the Washington Post and the Times published sections of the leaked “Pentagon Papers,” classified documents that exposed the premeditated, geopolitical rationale for American involvement in the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War. And of course, in 1972, two reporters at the Post—Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein—broke the Watergate story. Faith in the federal government as an arbiter of truth had been irreversibly shaken, and the press rose to fill the institutional vacuum.

As intelligence agencies flourished throughout the Cold War era, the government accumulated unprecedented power over mass information. In the Vietnam era, it became evident that the separation of powers does not provide a mechanism to check the government’s control of information, its ability to craft the public truth. The system designed by the Framers has checks for political governance, but not for informational governance. Although the Framers envisioned balance between three separate and defined branches of government, the information age solidified the free press as the fourth estate, a vital democratic institution. In a system where power originates with the people, democratic institutions such as the press act as channels for public interests.

The free press serves two institutional roles. First, the press acts as an independent check on the government’s control over information. The press’s role in challenging government deception or deviation from objective truth is similar to the judiciary’s role in challenging government actions that deviate from the supreme law of the land. Second, the press is the most responsive representative of the people’s interests and opinions. The most responsive political institution is the House of Representatives, but the people react to government decision-making daily, not every two years. The free press is not a legal institution, but it can pressure the legislative and executive powers and shape their courses of action. In “The Art of the Deal,” President Trump himself writes, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from dealing with politicians over the years, it’s that the only thing guaranteed to force them into action is the press — or, more specifically, fear of the press.” While individuals can and do speak up, it is the press that gives words weight. The press collects, amplifies, and focuses the voice of the people.

With an understanding of the press as a democratic institution, we can begin to piece together what is happening to it.

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American democracy is balanced, but the balance between institutions is always rocking. In recent years, polarization and obstructionism have rendered Congress, which the Framers envisaged as the most powerful institution, wholly ineffective. The other institutions have been forced to pick up the slack and perform roles that they were not designed for. In place of legislation, President Obama governed through executive order, and some of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions have held weight akin to legislation. As popular discontent swelled alongside dysfunction—popular approval of Congress has not broken twenty percent since October 2012—the press’s role has also become outsized. In the absence of a functioning Congress, the people look to the press for lucid expressions of politics—not only outrage and criticism, but also policy and reform, a way forward. The free press used to be the most reactive representative of the people. Now it is the only representative of the people. But it cannot possibly fulfill this role. While the press can act as a safety valve for public discontent that redirects political institutions between elections, a comatose Congress is a blockage even the full force of the people seems unable to dislodge.

The fourth estate is failing at its second role due to Congress’s shocking inability to respond to public sentiment. Although the people abhor Congress’s failure, voters can feel somewhat accountable for it. But because the press is privately owned, its failure feels inherently undemocratic, especially because vast tracts of news media are controlled by enormously wealthy and politically active elites. It is a democratic nightmare: our elected officials will not represent us, and when we speak up, our voice is chopped, screwed, punditry-ed, and then regurgitated as a data point on John King’s “magic map” or a bullet point on Bill O’Reilly’s side graphic, both of whom are employed by $30 billion-in-revenue international media conglomerates. The injustice that wells up when our voice can only be distorted through the kingdoms of media magnates has left people skeptical of the press’s first institutional role, as the arbiter of objective truth. This is precisely where President Trump intends to strike.

An American democratic institution has never been as vulnerable in the modern era as the press is right now. The press is already unable to perform its function as an amplifier of the people’s voice because Congress will not listen. The Trump administration seeks to push further and undermine the press’s ability to check government control over information. The assault on the factual supremacy of the free press is two-sided and encapsulated in the concept of “fake news.”

The first side of the assault against free press is the origin of “fake news,” articles from websites with no previous credibility that are factually unsubstantiated. When the mainstream press began to report on objectively false stories from unknown sources, “fake news” blossomed into a cultural phenomenon—a bizarre cycle of press reporting on press, affirmation bouncing so quickly between the walls of ever-tightening echo chambers that they crumbled completely, where the line between authenticity and satire is indiscernible. Fabricated news threatens the free press from the outside in, a toxic mix of conspiracy fringes and newly normalized polarization eroding the foundation of factual discourse.

The second front is just as bizarre as the first. In a stunningly effective appropriation of the free press’s vernacular, President Trump has used the phrase “fake news” to attack the press’s factual credibility, labeling stalwarts of journalism such as the Post and the Times “fake news.” Members of the Trump administration are unprecedentedly willing to shout over, contradict, and mock reporters. President Trump’s first press conference was laden with surreal moments where he leveraged his intimate understanding of reality television dynamics with a strange charisma, knowing that the only people who mattered were not in the room but rather watching from home.

It seems unthinkable, but the press, or at least one that acts as the fourth estate, will no longer exist if it does not retain its fundamental role as an arbiter of fact. The two-sided attack on the free press is alarmingly effective. Pew Research Center reports that eighty-eight percent of adults say that fake news has “caused confusion about the basic facts of current events.” A 2017 Quinnipiac poll found that only fifty-two percent of Americans “trust the news media over Donald Trump to tell the truth about important issues.” President Trump is attempting to restore the government’s supremacy in crafting objective truth, lost in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, by creating chaos. In an age in which no source is trustworthy, President Trump seeks to emerge as the only reliable arbiter of reality.

It seems unlikely that the Trump administration will successfully acquire unilateral control over public information because the closer it gets to that point, the more wrong it will feel to all Americans. People sympathetic to President Trump’s attack on mainstream media are frustrated by the media’s failure to act as a representative of the people’s views. While the people want a better press, President Trump wants no press at all. A system without a free press that checks government, a system where truth is determined only by the government itself, is reminiscent of totalitarian regimes that red-blooded Americans detest. But the fundamental problem, the people’s discontent with the press, still remains. How can we ensure that the fourth estate best fulfills its first institutional role as the arbiter of facts in American democracy?

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It is clear that a strong free press should be independent, but it is not clear that America’s press is independent. The United States consistently ranks poorly on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. Last year, the U.S. ranked forty-first out of 180 countries. The index is composed of six subindices, and the U.S. fares especially badly on media independence, “the degree to which the media are able to function independently of sources of political, governmental, business and religious power and influence.” The organization, concerned about the Obama administration’s harsh treatment of the press with regard to national security issues, advocates a federal “shield law,” which would protect reporters from being forced to reveal their sources to the government. But beyond the press’s legal means of remaining independent is an issue of ownership and perception. Across the political spectrum, from Trump voters to ex-occupiers to mainstream liberals concerned about inequality, there is a widespread perception that America’s institutions are increasingly subservient to an elite minority. The press, serving an institutional role in American democracy, is subject to the same scrutiny. With billionaires such as Bloomberg, Murdoch, Bezos, and Adelson owning huge swaths of the media, the same skepticism of elitism fuels distrust of the press. Historically, the F.C.C. maintained media cross-ownership rules, which banned individuals and companies from owning both newspapers and television news networks, but scrapped them in 2003. Reintroducing this regulation, and further regulations on press ownership, would probably be welcome among people across the political spectrum.

Due to first amendment protections, regulating cable news is tricky, and regulating newspapers is virtually impossible. Instead of regulating existing press organizations, a solution may lie in the creation of new ones through public-private partnerships with more organizational credibility. Although National Public Radio (NPR) is perceived as slightly left-of-center, its organizational structure provides a model that addresses the widespread concern of elite control over the press.

NPR creates programming that is broadcasted from nine hundred independently owned radio stations across the U.S. Each of the stations determines the content it broadcasts and is free to broadcast NPR programming, other radio programming, or its own original programming. NPR and member stations partner with each other to form a news gathering network, and member stations are often the originators of content that NPR distributes to other stations. Most importantly, the public radio network that NPR oversees is nonprofit, and the sources of funding for NPR member stations are diverse: thirty-seven percent from individual listeners, twenty percent from corporations, twelve percent from colleges and universities, ten percent from foundations, nine percent from federal funds appropriated through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, seven percent from miscellaneous sources, and five percent directly from federal, state, and local governments. Compare this system to CNN or Fox News, owned by worldwide media conglomerates that turn profits of $3 billion and $6 billion a year, respectively. The pluralistic system of American public radio, one that fosters hundreds of independent stations without profit motives, ensures the exact type of credibility the rest of the American press, especially cable news, lacks. A broad network of independent television news stations could accommodate a diverse range of political viewpoints, untainted by elite influence. Creating a system that resembles NPR for television news is possible, but the effort would be powerfully opposed by the corporations that would have to compete against it.

Building pluralistic organizations is the first step to restoring a credible free press. The current America, a nation so outraged and polarized that objective fact has become fluid, is unsustainable. We must lay down a solid groundwork beneath us, a starting point to reconcile our deep divides. But that alone will not stop the torrent of fake stories flooding newsfeeds. It will not stop an administration that does not hesitate to disparage the most well-established names in journalism. It will not fix a broken Congress. Like in the shadow of the Vietnam era, faith in one of America’s fundamental democratic institutions has been shaken to its core. Although Americans could never look at the federal government the same way, confidence in our institutions was slowly restored. Our democracy, once reshaped, survived. We can hope for the same outcome. American democracy will endure, but only if the people recognize that we must rebuild, rather than demolish, the institutions we currently despise.