The Death of the Free Press….
If something goes wrong with our free press, the country will go straight to hell. — I.F. Stone
Newspapers are gossip printed on the backs of advertisements. — Donald E. Koch
Arguably, the most important of Americans’ rights is embodied in the First Amendment, which includes the right to a free press. Without a free press, the ability publicly examine, analyze, and, if necessary, criticize the words and deeds of our leaders would not exist, thus leading us into the abyss of kakistocracy. Such is what we had during the Trump Administration.
During the 1890s to the 1920s, in the so-called “Progressive Era,” there was a tradition of muckraking, in which investigative journalists such as Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, Jacob Riis, Upon Sinclair, Charles Edward Russell, and many others took aim at corrupt practices in government, business, labor, health, housing, education, and the military, and eventually led to reforms leading to safer working conditions, lower working hours, better health care, the child labor laws, the right to unionize, safer housing, and many other improvements to American life.
The staid, upper-crust journalist, Walter Lippman, the New York-born son of transplanted German Jews who hid his background, was part of the journalistic aristocracy during the 1920s through the 1960s. He was the paradigm of the intellectual elite among journalists and while he was a socialist at a young age, he quickly left that movement due to disagreements with its leading proponents.
In contrast, there were crusading “give-’em-hell” journalists, such as I.F. Stone, who, from the 1920s to his death in 1989, believed in speaking/writing truth to power, and provided deep insights into the misdeeds of America’s political, business, educational, health, and military leadership. The I.F. Stone Weekly was a weekly newsletter which continued in the fine tradition of muckraking, and did its best to stimulate substantial social discussions of America’s problems. Stone’s passion for “the little guy” contrasted with the genteel, non-confrontational writings of Lippman. Although brilliant, Lippman simply couldn’t be bothered to man the barricades and fight for justice. That was not an affliction from which Stone suffered.
Many of the finest journalists in our history were part detective, part crusader, part novelist, looking for the secrets that held us back and suppressed progress.
Sinclair Lewis, who wrote It Can’t Happen Here, Babbitt, Main Street, and Arrowsmith (for which he won the Pullitzer Prize) exemplified this tendency. Lincoln Steffens’ The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens likewise demonstrated how good journalists could sift the essential parts of any story and turn them into powerful lessons about what our leaders have done wrong and what we can do to correct their malfeasance.
The Plot Against America, an early-2020 HBO mini-series of six episodes, reflected the life of a working-class Jewish family in New Jersey as the endured the rise of Charles Lindbergh to the Presidency and his launching of this country towards fascism. The series, based on the semiautobiographical book of the same name by Phillip Roth (“Portnoy’s Complaint”), addressed the rise of antisemitism and the easy drift towards fascism in America, trends we have seen growing during the Trump Administration.
Roth’s work really reflected the old-school muckraking of the Progressive Era. Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (flawlessly portrayed by John Turturro), easily led down the garden-path by the Nazi-influenced Administration of Charles Lindbergh, didn’t want to admit that the bigotry against Jews was being baked into America’s laws, and his views of the legislation propounded in support of this were nothing more than the avoidance of his moral imperative by someone deathly afraid to take a stand and fight for what was right. His acquiescence in the face of increasing antisemitism was the tale of the “Little Boy With His Finger in the Dike,” soon flooded with his worst nightmare, but then it was too late for him to do anything about it.
Starting in the 1940s and continuing through the 1990s, we had journalists such as Edgar R. Murrow, C. Wright Mills, Betty Friedan, Michael Harrington, Gloria Steinem, Bill Moyers, Barbara Ehrenreich and others whose articles in newspapers and magazines, as well as their radio and television appearances, showed a commitment to telling the truth, regardless of the pressure they (and their employers) felt from the subjects of their reporting. (Now, other than a few irreverent comedians, there’s really only Michael Moore and some of the journalists on MSNBC who are really taking on the Establishment by conducting the sorts of investigations and providing reporting that characterized the Golden Age of Progressive Journalism.)
With the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 (which required broadcasters and publishers to present both points of view on opinion pieces), the top was let off the bottle of right wing broadcasting; soon, Robert Downey, Sr., Glenn Beck, and —worst of all — Rush Limbaugh were free to spout their poison over the airwaves. In turn, the popularity of these journalistic hate-mongers led Rupert Murdoch to buy the stations making up the Fox Broadcasting Company in 1986, and, in the past 35 years, the commentators on conservative TV and radio (Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Don Imus, and Limbaugh) have gotten more vitriolic in their tirades. They have found the weak spots among their listeners: people frustrated with their lives, low incomes, deteriorating quality of life, shrinking sizes of their country towns as young people leave, never to return again.
These employees of the Republican Ministry of Propaganda spew their homophobic, xenophobic, misogynistic, religiously-bigoted rants round the clock and form the daily background noise listened to by millions of people throughout the country. The constantly repeated hatred over the last 20–30 years has brainwashed a generation of us into believing that those made fun of, ridiculed by, and/or blamed by these commentators —African-Americans, Latin Americans, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, non-Christians —for America’s shortcomings must be restricted, blocked, and controlled.
So the hate-mongers have attracted huge followings, which are very attractive to broadcast advertisers, and the cycle continues as millions and millions of advertisers fill the commercial coffers of the radio and television stations employing these commentators.
Limbaugh’s “Dittoheads” became Trump’s “Base,” both accepting what they heard without critical analysis or doubt about the truth of what has been spouted into the airwaves. The net result is that we nearly came to a second Civil War in this country on January 6. The people who broke into the Capitol, killing five people in the process, were members of the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, and other right-wing militant groups whose flames of hatred were fanned by the repeated ministrations of the corrupt media on the right, and the lack of a strong voice in progressive media which failed to extinguish the fire.
Now, we have corrupt and cowardly politicians in Congress, as well as in state legislatures around the U.S., who refuse to take a stand against the domestic terrorists who tried to resurrect Trump’s regime, and who refuse to get rid of the seditious members in their own ranks. What will happen to “Cancun Cruz?” How about “Jerkoff Josh Hawley?” What will the Senate do with “Maniacal Marjorie Taylor Greene?” Will the House expel “Loser Lauren Boebert?” What will be done to rid ourselves of “Moscow Mitch McConnell?”
The foundation of American liberty is a system of checks and balances: three co-equal branches of government, of which all depend upon an informed and interested citizenry to make sure that each branch does what it ought to do. To a large extent, from the early 1700s when New York printer John Peter Zenger was tried for libel and he was acquitted on the ground that “truth is an absolute defense to libel,” American newspapers and the journalists who wrote for them were responsible for reporting what went on in each branch of government. In that way, the people could make informed decisions about whether their employees were, in fact, doing their jobs as required.
Although Zenger’s trial did not guarantee freedom of speech — -we needed the First Amendment for that — his acquittal nonetheless provided a solid basis for our rights to an independent press. Such a press, and not a bunch of loud-mouthed, hate-spewing boors with microphones, is what can help us keep a democracy alive in America. But it also requires that our citizenry be eager to hear and read various viewpoints, based on facts and evidence and not animalistic hostilities and prejudiced viewpoints. Without such a citizenry, the question comes down to this: do we, as Americans, deserve a democratic form of government?