A Free Press Is Not A Fair Press

Al Franken, Minnesota’s junior senator and the single biggest giggle getter in the United States government,1 had a hard first campaign for office. His winning margin was a couple of hundred votes and what with recounts and lawsuits, and more lawsuits, and, yep, more lawsuits, it was eight months after the election before he actually took the oath of office.

Before that happy ending Franken had to deal with a lot of tough media coverage. Not only was he labelled a joke candidate—and not just because he was a professional comedian and satirist–he was on the receiving end of some pretty nasty press. An article he’d written for Playboy got dredged up, put through media rinse, and “pornographer” became the syntactic caboose on sentences mentioning his name. It also turned out that at some point he’d paid taxes to the wrong state, which meant he hadn’t paid taxes to the right state, and, as you might guess, it was the non-payment that got the headlines.

The media mud bath had Franken feeling pretty low and sorry for himself, so he wrote to a big political figure who had his own massive set of less than flattering press clippings. That guy was Al Gore, the candidate most Americans supported for president in 2000 but lost because of the fiddle-the-books accounting of the Electoral College (sound familiar?). Franken figured Gore would be sympathetic and could maybe give a few tips on how to deal with a media environment that could eat a reputation alive. Here’s Gore’s three word answer:

“Suck it up.”

Every elected official—and one in particular—could profit from that advice. President Donald Trump, to put it mildly, is not sucking it up. He less bears the slings and arrows of the free press than questions the whole concept of “free”. He has bashed news coverage and news outlets he doesn’t like as “fake”, has openly mocked a disabled reporter, tweeted a kind of weird and creepy video of him body slamming someone with a CNN logo for a head, called one journalist “dumb as a rock” and described a TV talk show host as “bleeding from a facelift”. His administration’s relationship with the press is rapidly becoming, not just adversarial, but unabashedly hostile.

There’s no better evidence for this than Trumps recent tirade against the American media, made on foreign soil no less. Part of that included this quote: “What we want to see in the United States is honest, beautiful, free, but honest press. We want to see a fair press, that’s a very important thing.” Trump sought sympathy on this point from Vladimir Putin, who was happy to oblige. Let’s hope Putin wasn’t offering any pointers on what to actually do about reporters and their pesky questions. Russian journalists critical of Putin have a suspiciously high mortality rate.

It might be good if someone reminded the president of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. It says nothing about an “honest” or “beautiful” press, and says not a jot about being “fair”. It says Congress shall make no law prohibiting the freedom of the press. Period. That’s all that a functioning democracy requires and all the U.S. Constitution demands. Not a fair press. Not an objective press. And certainly not a beautiful press. Just free. The press needs to be free to cover government as it sees fit, without government interference or direction. And if the government and its officials do not like what the free press reports? Tough noogies.

Donald Trump genuinely doesn’t seem to get this, or how dangerous it is to suggest that things should be otherwise. There’s no question that the media is not being nice to Trump. That’s not their job. Fox News wasn’t nice to Obama. The Washington Post could be pretty hard on Dubya. Pretty much the whole DC press corps piled on Bill Clinton when it turned out he was getting his corn nibbled by a White House intern in the Oval Office. The press isn’t nice to, well, lots of politicians. Ask Richard Nixon. Gary Hart. Mark Foley. Larry Craig. The Keating Five. Marc Sanford. Rod Blagojevich. And a gagillion others. Ask Hillary Clinton if she thought the press coverage of her email inclinations was “fair”, “honest” or “beautiful.”

Here’s a small sampling of some of the less than flattering things the press corps thought to make national news about Obama: he was not born in the United States, he was “the most ignorant president in our history”, and he was the “founder of ISIS.” Trump should recognize all of those not fair, not beautiful, and certainly not honest claims. After all, Trump himself made them and didn’t seem too upset that the national media megaphoned them to the moon. The problem only seems to be when he’s on the receiving end.

A free press, no doubt, can get pretty ugly. Is sure as shooting can be pretty unfair. But what’s the alternative? Letting the government and its representatives bring the press to heel might make for more “beautiful” coverage of the powerful, but that’s not what a democracy needs. Democracy needs the press to be a watchdog with teeth. Anyone who steps into the electoral arena needs to recognize they might get bitten in the ass—justifiably or not—and needs to accept that’s just part of the gig. It’s the price of keeping the press free, and democracy rarely survives without a free press.

Most pols, of course, get this. They recognize the singular importance of First Amendment freedoms and their necessity to democracy, even if they aren’t happy with the result a lot of time. Most elected officials—believe me, I used to be a political reporter—get ticked off at the press and think it’s unfair. Most elected officials—certainly none I’ve ever been personally or professionally acquainted with—would never stoop use the power of their office to wage petty feuds with journalists or media outlets, much less engage in a systematic campaign force the news to give them better coverage. .

Because most elected officials are grownups most of them, quite properly, follow Al Gore’s advice. Donald Trump should too. You hold the most powerful office on the planet. People are not going to like everything (or even much of anything) you do. The bad stuff will be covered by the media. A lot. What’s the best response to that?

Suck. It. Up.

1.You might know him better as Stuart Smalley or the one-man mobile uplink character from his 15 years on Saturday Night Live, or from one of shoot-milk-out-your-nose funny books like Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. I guess having a 30-year career in comedy obviously gives you a pretty big leg up in being king of the yuks in the political world, but it also helps that pretty much no other politician is funny.