The First Amendment is stronger than ever, and is being exercised more freely and aggressively than at any time in our nation’s history.
That may seem a surprising conclusion based on the handwringing from Big Media outlets like CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, The New York Times, the Washington Post and others who claim that the First Amendment is under attack from President Trump. But it is nevertheless true.
The Big Media outlets are doing their best to conflate themselves with the First Amendment, i.e., an attack on CNN, they say, is an attack on freedom of the press. That is a lie, as CNN would quickly label a dubious assertion by the president. CNN is merely an organization that takes advantage of First Amendment rights to do its job. CNN is not the embodiment of the First Amendment. Neither is The New York Times or the Washington Post.
What really bothers Big Media is that they are not as relevant, respected or necessary as they once were. But they want to be treated as if they are, as if it’s still 1950 or 1960 or even 1990. They want to be the exclusive filter through which news and information flows, but they are no longer that, and it is that fact that leads to their frequent hissy fits.
In this internet age, there are tens of thousands of alternative sources for news and information when it comes to national events, at least several hundred of which are regularly consulted by the masses on a daily basis. Most of these newer, alternative news sources are firmly planted in one ideological corner or the other, and their credibility is often suspect – but unfortunately the same can be said for CNN, MSNBC, FOX, ABC, CBS, NBC, The New York Times, the Washington Post and countless additional metropolitan newspapers.
The cratering of respect and credibility for the once powerful Big Media outlets is not the fault of President Trump. It is the fault of the media outlets themselves. Their low standing is the result of their own irresponsible choices, culminating in their outrageously biased coverage of the 2016 presidential election.
Trump is off the mark when he criticizes certain outlets for delivering “fake news.” The news itself – the content – is real enough. It’s the delivery that is flawed. The problem is not fake news. The problem is horrible journalism.
Understanding good journalism does not require an advanced degree. Good journalism is accurate. It is fair. It does not have an agenda. It is not out to get someone. It presents facts as completely as human beings are capable of gathering them. It does not seek out only the negative or the positive about the subjects that are covered. It follows the facts where they may lead, without a preconceived end result. Virtually none of the Big Media outlets follow these simple precepts anymore.
The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
What a thing of beauty. So much is covered in so few words. But for today’s purpose, our focus is on free speech and the press. “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”
The First Amendment does not say, “The president shall not criticize the media or call it fake news.” It does not say, “Certain media outlets above others will have rights of access and the front row at press briefings.” It does not say, “The president shall always call on CNN for a question during press conferences.” None of those examples, when they happen or do not happen, threaten, harm or violate the First Amendment.
When he or his staff holds a briefing or event, the president of the United States can handpick any group of media outlets he desires and exclude any he wants to keep out. Doing so violates no one’s First Amendment rights. The only way CNN’s First Amendment rights could be violated is if Congress passed a law taking CNN off the air.
Everyone associated with the news media, big or small, has gone through battles with various public officials, whether local, state or national, over access and inclusion. There are always cases where some officials or organizations or groups invite some media outlets to an event and not others, or send press releases to one while not sending to the others, or provide information later to others while getting it into a preferred outlet’s hands first. These are age-old games that are as ancient as the written word.
When it happens, it is not a violation of anyone’s First Amendment rights. In some cases, open record or freedom of information laws might be violated, but First Amendment rights are not. Nothing is preventing a media outlet from exercising its First Amendment rights, both by complaining loudly about the treatment and by pursuing the information through a less convenient avenue than having it handed over on a silver platter.
But meanwhile, the First Amendment itself is being exercised in this internet age so freely, so aggressively, so without boundaries that it could be mistaken for being on steroids. Anyone with internet access and a blog, anyone with email, anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account – both media members and non-journalists – has a worldwide platform to exercise their freedom of speech, even the worst kinds of free speech (anonymous and therefore irresponsible). Far from inhibiting the exercise of free speech and a free press, President Trump, intentionally or not, is demonstrating that the jealous entitlement CNN and other Big Media outlets have had on the First Amendment is a thing of the past.
The only way the traditional Big Media outlets can recapture their special claim on the First Amendment and the respect they once enjoyed is by doing what they are most unlikely to do – return to a form of journalism that is fair and unbiased, tough but respectful. Short of that, their standing and influence will continue to diminish. The fault will be theirs, not the president’s.
Gary Abernathy is Publisher-Editor of the (Hillsboro) Times-Gazette. Reach him at 937-393-3456 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.