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By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
In a 1786 letter to his Scottish friend and physician James Currie in Paris, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” The unfortunate aspect of that freedom is that a good number of Americans today believe that the American media has damaged its own credibility and with it, journalistic freedom.
The American people have never had such a low opinion of the news media than they do now. Last November’s Gallup poll rated the level of trust at 32 percent, down from a historic high of 72 percent in 1972. Much of the 1972 peak can be attributed to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigative work in exposing the corruption in the Nixon White House. Their reporting led to the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation.
In the decades since the 1970s, trust in the media has declined. The 2016 coverage of the presidential election further reinforced the low standing a large percentage of the American public has for the media.
Trump at War with the Media
Recently, we have witnessed President Trump openly and unabashedly go to war with the media. The result is a climate of untrustworthiness of epic proportions that will have far-reaching ramifications.
In his latest press conference, Trump scolded the media for its reporting. He insisted that “The press has become so dishonest that if we don’t talk about [it], we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people.” He also said, “We have to talk to find out what’s going on, because the press honestly is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.”
Journalists Condemn Trump’s Attack on the Media
Many prominent journalists such as Bernstein, now a CNN political commentator, were offended by Trump’s remarks. Bernstein openly criticized Trump’s portrayal of the media, saying, “Trump’s attacks on the American press as enemies of the American people are more treacherous than Richard Nixon’s.”
Even the reputable Society of Professional Journalists national president Lynn Walsh weighed into the fray. In a February 17 SPJ press release, Walsh said, “When President Trump continues his anti-media, anti-press rhetoric, tiptoes around questions from journalists and chooses not to provide support for information he shares, the American public is the biggest loser.”
Walsh added, “Journalists fill the role for the public by working every day to hold them accountable, ask about policies and question facts, figures and information being shared by the government. Journalists will continue to do their jobs to hold this administration and all government officials accountable so the public can have the information it is entitled to.”
President Trump’s criticism of the media is reprehensible and undignified for a sitting president. It’s not the role, nor should it be the role, of government to determine what is a legitimate news organization. That role is exclusively reserved for the American public to determine.
The Media Lost Credibility Through Its Own Ethical Violations
What Walsh fails to understand is that the media have only themselves to blame for their low standing by the American people.
There are many outstanding and credible journalists doing great work. However, the controversial website WikiLeaks published hacked documents alleging collusion between mainstream reputable news affiliates and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The data trove of hacked documents purportedly showed that the New York Times, CNBC, CNN, Politico, the Boston Globe and other news organizations colluded with the Clinton campaign. Articles were forwarded for vetting before publication, or journalists sought input regarding the best time to publish them to ensure maximum exposure.
Perhaps the egregious act came when then-CNN political analyst Donna Brazile, now acting head of the Democratic National Committee, emailed questions to the Clinton campaign prior to her appearance as a panelist on a Clinton debate with her rival, Senator Bernie Sanders.
None of the news organizations involved were held to account for such lack of journalistic ethics. They even violated their own ethical standards.
Coverage of Recent Political News
The same standard must be provided equally to both Democratic and Republican administrations. Unfortunately, this standard was often not applied under the Obama administration, where minimal coverage was given to Operation Fast and Furious gunrunning program which sent thousands of weapons into Mexico in the hope of tying them to Mexican drug cartels.
The scandal involving the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), wherein the IRS openly admitted to targeting Americans for their political beliefs, was also covered scantly in the mainstream media. However, of all the scandals, the one the media should have been outraged over the most was the allegations that stated the Obama administration was spying on journalists. In that case, the Justice Department reportedly secured two months’ worth of phone records of journalists working for the Associated Press. At that time, Attorney General Eric Holder never informed Congress that the Justice Department extensively went after Fox News reporter James Rosen by collecting his phone records, tracked his movements in and out of the State Department, and seized two days of his personnel emails. This after Holder signed off on the wiretapping.
As the media chastises Trump, it was also relatively silent about comments made last year by President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes. In a May 2016 New York Times article, Rhodes was quoted as saying: “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus.,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
Nothing was said about the contempt the Obama administration had for the media, now they are holding Trump to a different standard. This is why the general public has such low regard for the media establishment. One only has to remember how President Obama openly chastised Fox News, especially with regard to why the Democrats lost in November. The media was – again – moderately silent.
The media must certainly hold President Trump accountable for his rhetoric with regard to the press, but journalists would have more credibility if they held Democrats to the same standard as Republicans.