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August 21st, 2017

Insight

When the Press Plays 'Gotcha,' Everybody Loses

Suzanne Fields

By Suzanne Fields

Published May 19, 2017

When the Press Plays 'Gotcha,' Everybody Loses

It's a difficult time to be proud of everything about America. The president is vilified from all sides (some criticism deserved, some not), and what's difficult to defend is the democratic process as we've used it to produce both the likes of Donald Trump and a press that rushes to judgment like lemmings.

That's too bad. Honest criticism (not mindless vilification) reaffirms democracy and our values — if we don't lose the principles that make such criticism possible.

Now, more than ever, we must treasure freedom of speech. What's more troubling today than at any time in our nation's history is the way that speed and insidious repetitiveness enable mindless criticism to permeate the culture and attach to the president, whether based on fact or fiction, accurate reporting or distorted opinion posing as reporting.

Most presidents have criticized the press for their attacks regarded as undeserved and off the mark. President Abraham Lincoln characterized criticism by the press as "noise" and "gas" produced by ignorance and self-elevation. Closer to our own time, Marlin Fitzwater, the White House press secretary to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, described the media as "an unwanted appendage, like a cocklebur that attaches to your pants legs."

When George W. Bush became president eight years after his father lost to Bill Clinton, many pundits characterized it a victory getting a Bush back in the Oval Office and getting back at his father's bad press. Bush described the press as a special interest not representative of the public. He took pride in not reading newspapers or watching television news. When he was completing his first term, there was no Facebook, no Twitter and no YouTube. Today, the press as there was is as archaic as an illuminated manuscript put under glass after the Reformation.

Just as the printing press revolutionized the delivery of information and altered forever the way the public responds to information, the technological transformation of the media has changed the nature and impact of news consumption. The public has a shorter attention span and is eager for tales and titillation at the touch of a key, click or button. News permeates the atmosphere like oxygen.

When Martin Luther got access to a printing press, he taught the new doctrine of "the priesthood of the believer," persuading millions that they didn't need a priest to intercede with God. On social media today, tweeters and trollers alike imagine they can connect and criticize, whether informed or ignorant, as equals of everyone with a voice on the cultural and political hierarchy.

But truth is as slippery as mercury. Ken Auletta, who covered the press for The New Yorker when Barack Obama was president, observed that the pervasive content of the web and the endless argument of cable television created "pressure to entertain or perish, which has fed the press's dominant bias: not pro-liberal or pro-conservative but pro-conflict." Less than a decade later, partisan audiences avail themselves mainly to one view, left or right, so that great numbers of people conform to a mindset of narrow partisanship.


When President John F. Kennedy finished his solemn remarks to the public about the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 and the world felt poised on the edge of destruction, the television networks returned at once to scheduled programming. There was no crossfire of pundits taking sides to parse what he said. Imagine how debate and criticism would follow such a speech today. Cable TV would explode with gas and noise.

Contentious debate is good when it sorts and sifts, but if combined with pressure to entertain and the urge to sensationalize, it tempts reporters and analysts to become players in performance art rather than purveyors of information. The Washington Post newsroom sounded off with a raucous round of cheers the other day when it broke what it thought would be the story to destroy the president. By measurements of the internet, readers per minute soared.

The daily press conferences of Sean Spicer, the president's press secretary, are broadcast live on C-SPAN and are among the highest-rated shows on daytime television. YouTube offers discussions of the "spiciest moments" of the day illustrated with emojis of chili peppers and flames. Serious criticism in such an atmosphere is trivialized, and the spotlights on the newsmakers are less illuminating than suspenseful. Who will ignite the next bombshell?

All this is rooted for now in an "outsider" president who tuned and tweaked his public persona in a reality television show, and whose brazen carelessness is amply documented. For its part, the press acts on its Woodward and Bernstein envy without doing the hard digging (and disciplined editing) that made them famous. "Gotcha" may be fun to play, but the press, its customers and the First Amendment deserve a lot better.

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