Op-Ed: The Press as the ‘Enemy’
by Craig Ladwig
The president didn’t actually say that American journalism was the enemy of the people but he should have.
What he said was that “fake news,” not a free press, is the enemy. Nonetheless, 300 newspapers signed onto a campaign to protest the president’s comments and declare the importance of their particular definition of press freedom. Their coordinated editorials ran Aug. 16. You can read this as a dissenting view.
“Trump’s references to us as the ‘enemy of the American People’ are no less dangerous (than the murders at a Maryland newspaper office) because they happen to be strategic,” wrote the editors of the Kansas City Star on the assigned day. “That is what Nazis called Jews. It’s how Joseph Stalin’s critics were marked for execution.”
Many if not all of these journalists would be surprised to learn that there is more than the one school (their own) in the development of American journalism. Predominate, sadly, is a recent amalgam commonly known as “advocacy” journalism. Its philosophy, pace the Star’s admonitions, is the antithesis of what the Founders enshrined in the Constitution. As such, it indeed can be viewed as fake news and a lower-case enemy.
Hyperbole? Let’s unpack the history.
Official News — According to the historian and journalism professor Marvin Olasky, there were two great macrostories in the development of journalism here. The first, the “Official Story,” was built on the belief that power knows best, and that editors should print whatever the king or governor demands. The American colonists rebelled against this in their Committees of Correspondence, one of which organized the Boston Tea Party.
In Europe, published news was only what state authorities and their allies in established churches wanted people to know (think Facebook and Twitter).
Corruption News — The second, which is associated with the Protestant Reformation, is known as the “Corruption Story.” To quote Dr. Olasky again: “Rather than serving as public relations for the state, this story emphasized the universality of human failings and the tendency for individuals in positions of power to abuse their authority and then attempt to cover up wrongdoing.”
Olasky argues that those journalists and pamphleteers since Martin Luther who embraced the Corruption Story invented much of what we associate favorably with the craft: A sense of purpose, a willingness to oppose arrogant rulers and a stress on accuracy and specific detail.
Fake News — All American journalists, including those more interested in advocating than informing, claim the Corruption Story as their own. Few acknowledge that it has been replaced in America by a third macrostory called the “Oppression Story,” one that likes to think of itself as an improvement on the Corruption Story but is more truly based on the Official Story. It is creditably “fake.”
This philosophy began with William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer and the Yellow Press, the influence of which, acknowledged or not, strongly guides journalism today (think New York Times).
Its earliest advocates — the former journalist Benito Mussolini was one — focused on what people should know to make the world a better place, albeit what an elite and semi-official group defines as a better place. Also, because the ends are seen as admirable, the means are negotiable, i.e., in the contrived use of anonymous sources, in imaginary quotations and in only the most convenient facts.
Most of all, Oppression journalists believe that man is naturally good but is enslaved by oppressive social systems. To quote Olasky:
“In the Oppression Story problems arise not from personal corruption but from external influences, and the role of journalists is to put a spotlight on those influences. The hope is that if man’s environment is changed, man himself changes, and poverty, war, and so on, are no more.”
If you believe all of that, then you are well represented by today’s media. It follows, however, that if you believe all of that then the U.S. Constitution, common law, individual rights, individual responsibility and Western Civilization don’t make much sense.
And if that is true, and whether or not you would frame the contrast as harshly, Mussolini and not Luther is closer to your preferred model — the one, unavoidably, being the enemy of the other.
1. Robert Salsberg. “Newspaper Calls for War of Words Against Trump Media Attacks.” The Associated Press, Aug. 10, 2017.
2. Marvin Olasky. Central Ideas in the Development of American Journalism: A Narrative History. Routledge Press, 1991.