A Crisis of News: What Role Does Free Press Play in a Supposedly Free Nation Under Donald Trump?

Many of us have suspected the way the mainstream media handled Donald Trump and got him elected. Back when he was campaigning, his outrageousness guaranteed him more print and air time than any other candidate. He mowed over his opponents and moderators during debates, which meant he got more air time then as well. He was magical in that way — no one could touch him, and few even tried.

Mainstream media began by feasting on the show Trump was putting on, both for the purpose of personal entertainment and also for ratings, assuming the common sense of the nation would keep him from winning.

That assumption is the invisible trapdoor in our democratic system that got us here. What not enough of us understood is this: the better sense of much of the nation had been informed by neither facts nor credible news sources for years — all throughout the Obama era — and had instead been hand-fed alternative media filed with alternative facts that were circulating on the Internet. These alternative news sources fanned the flames of the mounting paranoia that had been percolating in the under-educated populations of Middle America. Even the well-educated Republicans often lived in homogenous enough communities to feel too insulated from anything or anyone who neither looked like, lived like or voted as they did to understand or care much about them.

The political divide came from culturally challenging ideas like LGBTQ rights, racial and gender equality, and abortion and gun rights, I suspect, than high unemployment or underemployment rates. So, what have Republicans done about that in the last 18 years? A lot of Republicans who might otherwise oppose a man like Trump support him as long as he remains as homophobic as they are and refuses to identify as a feminist on national TV, neither of which has anything to do with the job. This educated rich man behaves a lot like a less-educated working class man. He spouts the bellicose rhetoric of those who write letters to the editor at Midwestern newspapers, the kind I used to write for.

Trump became the poster child of the aging white male bigot, and those who identify with that fading order.

Neither the educated elite nor the mainstream news fully understood any of this back in 2015 when Trump was running for office. When Trump became the Republican nominee, their tone changed. The media, which had been facing a crisis of circulation in the digital age anyway, faced a new challenge: how would they cover a man who blazed past all their assumptions, capitalized on the media's weakness for sensationalism, and threatened to topple democracy as we know it without appearing biased?

Though newspapers always lean in some direction, but the question in the Trump era is how not to be openly and flagrantly biased, especially if you take some responsibility for getting an unethical lunatic into the top job. The Washington Post has embraced its bias, even adopting a slogan in response to Trump: “Democracy dies in Darkness.” Imagine that; imagine a national newspaper coming up with its first slogan in 140 years just to make a statement about the election of a president. Its headlines and editorials have followed suit, and one could never call WaPo anything but an opponent to Trump’s White House.

Is that okay? And, is it even allowed?

You have to consider what’s at stake: the democratic processes of the nation, justice, and the place of America in the world, environment issues, and human rights, for example. You have to consider that mainstream media, which must be anchored in fact, and is subject to libel laws, is threatened by the onslaught of alternative media sources that better support right-wing ideas and values, which are either not held to those laws or can’t be pinned down firmly enough to enforce them. If most of Middle America wanted to believe Barack Obama wasn’t born in America, and based their opinions on non-factual information found online, no amount of mainstream media reports attesting the opposite would stop them. You have to consider that Trump continued throwing the mainstream media into the frying pan almost immediately after his election, and has worked tirelessly to discredit them ever since.

And last: you have to consider that there are too few functioning checks and balances in place already, which is how a man like Trump not only got elected but has remained in office amid constant controversy ever since. The nation discovered Richard Nixon’s corruption and true character over time, but Trump’s character was on display long before anyone ever got to the polls. 

Still, we are in a new era in which the role of news, the sources of news, and the distribution of news is evolving, and we have to decide what role a free press plays in a supposedly free nation. We have to decide whether we’re willing to continue to pay for it and read it, which is all that keeps it in existence. Without a vibrant and well-supported free press, the government could move in with its own federal news agencies, which would become its own mouthpiece. Without a free press, it can’t be a free country. It’s one of the checks and balances the republic cannot survive without. 

In order to keep it, we need to get more interested in it. 

Cover photo via Youtube