In 1787, as Benjamin Franklin exited Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where delegates to the Constitutional Convention had been deliberating in secret, he was approached by a woman who asked him: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a Republic or a Monarchy?”
Franklin turned to her and famously replied: “A Republic, if you can keep it.” The late Prof. Richard Beeman explained the essential meaning of this exchange as follows: “Democratic republics are . . . absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health.” America, we are losing the republic.
News media, the bedrock of a healthy democratic republic, are in serious decline. Gallup recently released a poll indicating that public confidence in the media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” has fallen to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with only one-third of respondents stating that they trusted the media a great deal or fair amount. In addition, newspapers have faced tough economic times for many years, and the pace of declining advertising revenues is getting worse. The potential adverse impact on good government was recently revealed when two newspapers who had uncovered the New Jersey Bridgegate scandal cut staff on the eve of the Bridgegate criminal trial. Fewer reporters digging for clues will result in fewer political scandals being uncovered.
Much of the media trust deficit among political conservatives stems from disingenuous attacks by conservative pundits and radio talk show hosts. National and local talk radio hosts such as Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, Chris Plante, and Michael Savage undermine the Fourth Estate by vociferously attacking the “lies” of the mainstream media on a daily basis, but rarely providing specific instances of actual falsehoods. The economic motive is clear: by attacking mainstream news sources while claiming to provide “the truth” (i.e., whatever conservatives want to hear), conservative talk show hosts boost audience size and allegiance by inciting hatred of “the lying mainstream media.”
In a Washington Times commentary, titled “The Media’s Lies and Double Standards Accelerate at Blinding Speed,” conservative pundit Monica Crowley failed to state even one false fact reported by the news media. Instead, she complained that the media was biased because it showered extensive coverage upon the Democratic National Convention speech delivered by the father of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, but gave scant coverage to the Republican National Convention speech by the mother of one of the four Americans killed at the Benghazi embassy on Sept. 11, 2012.
Is Crowley stupid or does she know exactly what she is doing? Clinton did not attack the Benghazi mother following her convention speech. However, Trump attacked the Khan family on Twitter in retaliation for the father’s speech and seemingly insinuated that the mother did not speak due to her religion. There is a good reason why the Khan episode received more coverage: it was exceedingly more newsworthy.
Corrections are rarely issued within the conservative media bubble. For example, the flagship of counterculture conservative media, Breitbart News, published an article reporting that radio talk show host Michael Savage had been pulled off the air after discussing Hillary Clinton’s “delicate health.” The insinuation laid on the table was that Savage had been censored because he dared to discuss Clinton’s health problems. The truth was innocuous: Savage’s program had simply been preempted for one day in favor of wall-to-wall presidential debate coverage. Did Breitbart News publish a follow-up story clarifying that no connection existed between Savage’s discussion of Clinton’s health and the temporary interruption of his show? Of course not.
Misinformation is pouring into the vacuum created by the media trust deficit at an accelerating rate and conservative media mavens may not be able to control it. In recent days, public debate has focused upon “fake news” websites disseminating misleading and false information. Some experts contend that Russian operatives conducted a propaganda campaign during the election to spread fake news in an attempt to elect Donald J. Trump President. Additionally, conspiracy theories are running wild. Many people on social media sites are obsessed with a conspiracy theory called “Pizzagate” that even Breitbart News won’t touch (Pizzagate links Hillary Clinton, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, and Barack Obama to an alleged child sex ring that operates out of a D.C. pizza joint).
Major mainstream media outlets, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and major news networks (CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC), must shoulder their share of blame for the media’s poor reputation, although the wrongdoing tends to be biased coverage (especially story selection and framing) rather than outright false reporting. Much media bias is either subconscious or due to ignorance. Only 7% of journalists self-identify as Republicans, so left-leaning biased coverage can be committed even by journalists who strive to be objective. Budget cuts resulting from the tougher economic environment have led to the firings of newspaper ombudsmen and fact checkers, which further erodes the public trust.
Real and perceived media bias is a serious problem that policymakers of all political ideologies must prioritize. America cannot “keep the republic” if major media organs can no longer effectively report the news due to diminished resources or if the reporting of those news organizations is summarily dismissed because it is a product of the “liberal media.” Absent a common set of facts upon which to base public policy debates, anarchy awaits. When policy debates become little more than shouting matches, gunfire is just around the corner.
Currently the principal of Everest Law Firm in Alexandria, Virginia, Kris Hammond has served as an attorney for a district court judge, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the U.S. Department of Justice in its Civil Rights Division. He has run for office twice and was an elected delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention.