Sen. Bernie Sanders attacked the ownership of The Washington Post this week, accusing the paper of portraying his presidential campaign in a negative light because he has been critical of Amazon for, as he puts it, paying no taxes.
If news can be defined loosely as something extraordinary or unusual, this hardly qualifies. Politicians in this country have been critical of media coverage at least since the days of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Harry S. Truman once threatened a Washington Post music critic with a punch in the nose for panning a singing performance by Truman’s daughter. Richard Nixon kept an “enemies list” that included journalists. Hillary Clinton complained of a vast right-wing conspiracy that ultimately affected mainstream coverage of her and her husband.
But today’s criticisms are different. Sanders, who stands on the left end of the political spectrum, is sounding a lot like President Trump, who positions himself on the far right. Sanders didn’t stop with the Post. He also attacked The New York Times. Trump has gone further, labeling negative coverage against him as fake news and calling the media enemies of the people.
These high-profile attacks, enlarged by the partisan echo chambers of social media, have gained traction. A Gallup poll last year found 62% of Americans believe the media is biased, and 44% believe news is inaccurate.
As they erode public trust, these attacks become serious threats to American democracy. The truth is much different. Political power, unchecked, is the true enemy of the people. Even before the autocratic regimes of communism and fascism surfaced with their tight controls over information, the founding fathers understood this. It’s why press freedom was one of the first things enumerated under the Bill of Rights, right behind the all-important freedoms of religion and speech.
News media in the United States never have been perfect. The founders certainly understood this would be the case. This also was so in their time, when blatantly partisan newspapers attacked each other. But they understood that only in an atmosphere of constitutionally protected free dissemination could truth ultimately rise. Only then could power be held accountable.
The alternative — an atmosphere in which power could control information and suppress negative coverage — is far worse. Democracy can’t thrive under those circumstances.
But press freedom has an additional benefit. It frees and empowers individual journalists. Contrary to the line pushed by many politicians, and contrary to the confusing way some high-profile television commentators seem to wander between opinion and reporting, most rank-and-file journalists have high ethical standards that separate news reporting from opinion.
The Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s largest journalism association, publishes a code that urges journalists to “seek truth and report it,” “minimize harm,” “act independently” and “be accountable and transparent.”
How should the public judge? A good barometer of media ownership is how its journalists react. When ownership suppresses coverage, reporters tend to make it known. They protest, and often several of them quit. They take seriously their own mandate to report fairly. Recent examples abound, such as with recent ownership changes at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. This hasn’t happened at The Washington Post.
Also, the public should demand that politicians provide specifics, then scrutinize these. For instance, The Wall Street Journal recently looked at Sanders’ claims and found that, while some may argue Amazon pays little in taxes, it’s inaccurate to say it pays nothing.
Also, his criticisms seem tied to recent negative polling. Politicians regularly accuse such polls of being biased.
Thomas Jefferson was a frequent critic of the news media of his day. Yet he understood its importance, saying “the only security of all is in a free press.”
Americans are right to treat all news with a dose of skepticism, but they should treat the statements of politicians, even their favorite ones, the same. Then they should give thanks that they live in a nation where many news outlets compete to provide them the truth.