Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
“Media in an Anxious Democracy”
January 30, 2017
“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they choose to turn their back on the fire
and burn their behinds, they will just have to sit on the blisters.”
“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Spending five days in Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia, as we returned from Florida, was a reminder that partisanship, as bad as it is today, was far worse 156 years ago. But we cannot be complacent. Democracies are fragile; free people depend on the rule of law and adherence to civil behavior. While it was their right, sixty-eight Congressmen sitting out Mr. Trump’s inauguration did not help unify a nation after a fractious, but decisive election. Women marchers wearing pussyhats and using profanity lacked decorum. For Madonna to use the “f” word on CNN and to say that she’s “…thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House” was offensive and reckless. For protesters to hang Trump in effigy and to loot stores and burn cars was criminal. Civil disobedience is a right of free people, but these actions showed disrespect and did little to bind the wounds of an anxious nation. How have we gotten to this place?
There are multiple answers, but no easy ones. One thing, however, that does accentuate and differentiate today’s feelings from past cycles is the ubiquity of news, or what purports to be news. We know more about Presidential candidates than ever, some of which is true, but much that is false. Thomas Carlyle, a 176 years ago, wrote of the press as a “fourth estate” – a critical adjunct to democracies. They inform the public and serve as feedback to government. They provide facts and offers opinions. They are as essential as are legislative bodies. But when reporting is biased, they fail in their responsibilities. And, with over 80% of reporters self-identifying as liberals, that is what we have today. The press helps polarize the people.
With 85% of Americans connected to the internet, most get their news from on-line sources and television, places where news is delivered in snippets and always with a political bent. According to Pew Research, less than 10% of 18-49 year-olds get their news from print media – still the best source – despite the bias in papers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune and The New York Post.
Mainstream news media, because of proliferating social media, is searching for relevance in a changing world. Like so many industries, they have become victims of Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction. Mr. Trump has an uncanny ability to put the press, like his political opponents, on the defensive. He has called them out for the prejudices they express, and diverted them into fact-checking outrageous, but harmless, allegations like the numbers who attended the inauguration – “alternative facts” according to Kellyanne Conway – leaving little time to investigate, report or comment on real news. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand why the media despises Mr. Trump. His tweets render them superfluous.
Nevertheless, it is easier to criticize the press than to reform it; though humility and honesty would be a starting point. News is ubiquitous. Buckminster Fuller’s “Knowledge Doubling Curve” suggests that the amount of knowledge in the world doubles every thirteen months. For a front page editor to decide what stories to run is no easy task. Yet, there is little question that news articles have become indistinct from editorials. Separating truth from fiction is difficult for readers and viewers. Making matters worse, our schools are spending less time teaching students American history, failing to provide them an understanding of our nation’s past and its current civic institutions. Consequently, young people (and many older ones as well) are unable to put today’s events into perspective.
That anxiety of our leaders in Washington was not allayed by President Trump’s Inaugural. When he said “…today, we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it to you, the people,” the crowd on the mall erupted in applause, but from the indicted sitting behind him the response was tepid. He later added, “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.” One could almost feel Senator Mitch McConnell and Representative Paul Ryan wince (Democrats appeared nonplussed), while his supporters cheered. It is the hubris of the elite that was his target, as much as the politics they profess.
Mainstream media called the speech divisive. That it was, but not in the way the Obama Administration had been: The latter had divided us between rich and poor; white v. blue collar; gay/transgender v. straight; men v. women; Black v. Hispanic, and both v. White; Muslims, Christians and Jews against one another. Mr. Trump emphasized the divide between Washington and Main street. He took on the establishment, represented by politicians of both parties, mainstream media, bankers, big business, the entertainment industry, the teacher’s and other government unions. He clearly pointed out that their interests are in opposition to that of the people: “The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.”
Will politicians heed Mr. Trump’s call for unity? I hope so, but I do not have high expectations. The new President reminds me of Jimmy Stewart, as Jefferson Smith going to Washington to tilt with a corrupt and “swampy” Congress. Mr. Trump is not only up against Democrats, but against many in his own party, along with thousands of bureaucrats and lobbyists who collectively have made Loudon, Fairfax and Howard the three richest counties in the United States. He is up against mainstream media, which seeks a raison d’etre in a world passing it by. The elite – politicians, media, lobbyists, entertainers – have much invested in the status quo. They will fight to preserve what has served them well. Consider, for example, the number of politicians who have used public office as a springboard to private wealth. It is little wonder Mr. Trump won. One reason that Democrats are so incensed with Mr. Trump is that, in important respects, he has usurped their model, like inviting private sector union leaders to the White House three days after taking office. Democrats have become the party of the establishment, apologizing for the elite and ignoring the needs of working men and women – unless, of course, they work for government.
What makes Mr. Trump’s chance for success a possibility is that his age and personal achievements suggest no further career ambitions. He is rich and has notoriety, unusual even in our age. There is the probability that cuts to regulation and lower corporate taxes will boost economic growth, thereby reducing individual fears. He has surrounded himself with successful men and women of strong character, people from banking, industry, the military and eleemosynary institutions – individuals with independent opinions and thought. That they are willing to disagree with him has been apparent in Senate confirmation hearings. For the most part, these are not “yes” men and women who will blindly press forward the President’s agenda, but independent-thinking decision makers who will do what they believe to be right.
Some stress is good. It sharpens minds and makes us more conscious of events around us. But too much stress can be disruptive and counterproductive. We may have to “sit on our blisters,” as Lincoln opined; but let us hope it does not lead to “bitterness and hatred,” as Martin Luther King warned. Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Trump has the answers to get us back on track. I hope so.