The First Amendment to the United States constitution is clear; “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” The United States Constitution is unique in this point that it mentions a particular profession, that of the press, and specifically grants to that profession Constitutional protections. In recent years this cherished freedom has been tested, most recently with the ascendancy and subsequent presidency of Donald J. Trump. Repeatedly, he has singled out news sources who don’t agree with him or seek to question his legitimacy or policies, and has labeled them “Fake News.” With the current National emergency involving COVID-19, this becomes a great deal more serious then just the standard political theater. For instance, just a few weeks ago President Trump told his supporters that the virus was simply the latest Democratic hoax, with pundits on right wing media eager to agree with him and downplay the severity of the virus, but now the President has changed his tune. Offering a far more sober response that should have been front and center from the beginning.
One particular news organization has incurred the brunt of Trumps wrath; CNN. On numerous occasions Trump has christened CNN as the standard bearer for all that is wrong with journalism. Trump’s criticism has been so ubiquitous it has earned CNN a spurious distinction as a leader among fraudulent news purveyors in the Trump universe. A cursory view of American history will reveal, however, that Trump is not the first American, nor President for that matter, to make this claim. As Patterson and Wilkins point out in Media Ethics: Issues and Cases, “Madison, Hamilton and Jay in the Federalist Papers expected citizens to be informed and to participate in politics. They knew that political debate, including what was printed in the press, would be partisan and biased rather than objective, but they also believed that from this ‘noisy’ information the national being would find the truth. Unfettered communication was essential to building a new nation. Citizens had an obligation to read such information: the press had an obligation to provide it.”
What the founding fathers recognized as inherently bias, Trump goes the extra step and labels “fake.” The validity of this claim is suspect, indeed it is not the news media, but Trump’s claim that is “fake.” CNN, along with its counterparts Fox News, and MSNBC, populate the cable news spectrum with news that is packaged to be received by a specific audience. For example, it would stretch the bounds of credulity to suggest that Fox News doesn’t make every effort to put the policies and the person of the 45thoccupant of the White House in the best light. However upon close examination, what both CNN and Fox News have in common at their core is basic facts. At least more often than not.
For instance, CNN led with details of the Mueller investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election, Fox News led with the strong economic numbers that have been a hallmark of the Trump Presidency. But both eventually reported the same facts, but what is different is the placement and emphasis they choose to place on those facts. This “spinning” of the facts is done to appeal to the specific audiences these particular networks have targeted.
This is fundamentally important to understand when it comes to reporting of information that has political impact. Evaluating these networks and specifically evaluating President Trump’s claim that CNN is “fake news.”, may be accomplished through utilizing three important measurements; The Williams test of political relevance, The Williams framework of political virtue, (developed by political scientist Bruce A. Williams 2009) and by evaluating a particular role the news media may be fulfilling at any given moment.
First, the test of political relevance. A claim or news item is determined to be of political relevance when it meets the following criteria, “Useful: does it provide citizens with the kind of information that helps individual and collective decision making? Sufficient: is there enough of it and at enough depth to allow people to make informed choices? Is the information trustworthy, or is the source and the content reliable and credible? And finally, audience: the political ‘we’ on which the ancient Greeks placed so much emphasis.” When this test is applied to the information flowing from CNN and its rivals, the information meets these minimum tests, although that information may be skewed to the political left or right to appeal to the networks target audience. Thus, by this evaluation of this test, CNN is not fake news.
Next, Bruce Williams further evaluates the validity of news claims by the virtues of the content when measured by the following standards;
“Transparency: Does the audience know who is speaking?
Pluralism: Does the media environment provide an opportunity for diverse points of view, either in different messages that are equally accessible or within a single message?
Verisimilitude: Do the sources of the messages take responsibility for the truth claims the explicitly and implicitly make, even if these claims are not strictly verifiable in any formal sense?
Finally, it is important in any serious evaluation of news that the “normative roles for the media in democratic political systems”be taken into consideration. The text outlines these roles as:
- The radical role operates when the media provide an alternative vision to the current political and social situation in a country.
- The monitorial role is what citizens most often think of when they speak of the watchdog function of the news media.
- The facilitative role is perhaps captured by news coverage of elections and political advertising about candidates and public issues.
- The collaborative role, where the media promote the views of the state.
Even a cursory viewer of CNN or any of its competitors will quickly surmise that all of these roles are fulfilled and exceeded, securing them a position of credibility, rather than “fake” as the President so regularly claims.
In the final analysis, the standards put forth as outlined in Media Ethics: Issues and Cases demonstrates that CNN is not fake news as the President claims. But rather, when the President is held to these standards, his claims fail the test of validity. The American people are privileged to live in a system that provides protections to speech and the press, insuring that our valued Republic may not be dismantled because of an unwise vote of the electorate. What is important during this moment of National challenge is the way Trump chose to lead. From the beginning of his Presidency, he established a standard of vitriol and division, making a point to disagree with the easily verifiable facts of his inauguration’s crowd size. Leadership isn’t about “hitting back,” or labeling your political opponents with dismissive nicknames or promises of retaliation. Leadership is about rising above the fray and calling all of us to the higher ideals of our Republic. And leadership is perhaps most often missed in the moments when it is needed most. Such as now.
History will perhaps judge the Presidency of Donald Trump as a chaotic moment in the democratic story of America’s larger narrative. A loss for us all. But equally, because of the checks and balances wisely built into our system by our founding fathers, this momentary loss will not derail liberty’s legacy of ultimate victory. Because of this we all win.