Members Only | April 24, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

To Fight Fox, Champion Free Press

Get reporters to see the threat of an "authoritarian news system."

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Part of the challenge for the Democrats is getting the Washington press corps to understand fully that the president’s 40 percent approval rating (give or take) is not simply the result of voter approval. It’s the result of an international right-wing media apparatus, primarily Fox, that lies and propagandizes for the president to keep him in power. Moreover, this media apparatus is amplified by a Russian government that has come to recognize common purpose between the Kremlin and the Republican Party.

The Washington press corps does not see, or will not see, the magnitude of the problem. As a result, the press tends to look at the debate over impeaching Donald Trump as a constitutional argument entirely contained within the Democratic Party.

That’s not the case.

Decades of information warfare by a right-wing media apparatus (that’s not an overstatement), joined later by Russian operatives seeking to violate American sovereignty, have created new political conditions in which normal intra-party considerations often don’t apply. Indeed, continuing to apply them warps reality. The impeachment debate among Democrats isn’t just about what’s good for a political party. It’s about what’s good for a free-thinking self-governing republican society.

The president’s 40 percent approval rating (give or take) is not simply the result of voter approval.

This is an existential problem, and I don’t have a ready solution. Whatever it is, however, I think it should involve getting the Washington press corps to understand fully that the president’s approval rating is not simply the result of self-directing good-faith individuals arriving at conclusions based on fact and reason. It’s the result of ignorance, fear, prejudice, and a right-wing media apparatus that lies to people.

Here’s how NYU’s Jay Rosen put it Sunday:

It’s as if one-third of the public has been broken off from the rest of the electorate and isolated in an information system of its own. It’s not only that they are inclined to trust the president more than the news system; it’s the White House and Trump himself are trying to eviscerate the whole idea of a public record or of an independent sources of facts on which the country can disagree and argue about.

That goes way beyond the notion of bias in the media … It’s actually an authoritarian news system that is up and running in the country that’s known for having the freest press in the world. We don’t always have the language we need to talk about it (My italics).

Rosen was on Brian Stelter’s “Reliable Sources,” CNN’s weekend show about the news media. With Rosen was the inestimable Nicole Hemmer, author of Messengers of the Right, a history of the right-wing media apparatus I’m talking about. Hemmer told Stelter something that appeared to shock him, and his being shocked tells you something: the Washington press corps does not understand that the right-wing media apparatus is powerful enough to stop the Democrats from impeaching Trump.

If Richard Nixon had what Trump has, she said, “you would have seen a really different conversation about Watergate and probably a really different outcome.”

If President Nixon had been able to amplify his arguments about a witch hunt in the media, if he’d been able to discredit the congressional investigation, discredit the special counsel who was investigating his wrongdoing, that support that he had—it crumbled to about 25 percent of Americans by the end of his term—probably wouldn’t have crumbled. And the Republican Party, the office holders in the House and the Senate, would have been a little bit more pushed to hold the party line.

Stelter paused for a moment. A long pause. (It starts at 4:43.)

Some bad gross food for thought.

Stelter asked how to break the Republican’s closed circuit. Hemmer said there isn’t a clear remedy, not with so much political and economic incentive to keep disinformation flowing. But I think there’s a way to at least begin addressing it: that’s for the Democratic nominee to become, as it were, a champion of a free press.

Trump has provided a pole. Reporters are the enemy of the people, he said. I don’t think the Democrat should say reporters are heroes of the people (that’s a bit much). But he or she should make clear that a free press is key to a just and equitable society, that good information sustains a free and self-governing republican nation, and that a democratic news system is the right antipode to an authoritarian news system.

The Democratic nominee should also link in the minds of reporters (as much as possible) the inter-related roles of the press and the first branch of American government. Congress can’t hold a president accountable for his obvious and serial crimes if a misinformed (that is, brainwashed) public prevents it from doing its job.

The Democratic nominee isn’t asking for favors, only that the press honor its better angels, which require seeing the totality of the existential problem the nation faces. In doing that, I think the Democratic nominee might end up bringing some of the press corps to his or her side, something that’s necessary to breaking the right-wing media’s grip on one-third of Americans “broken off from the rest of the electorate.”

—John Stoehr

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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