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OPINION | Bad, press (2)

“THE last person to rule America who didn’t believe in the First Amendment was King George III,” wrote MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt, back in June — which is true only if you discount that the colonists actually enjoyed robust speech protections relative to their English cousins; if you are insensible of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the pro-slavery “gag” rules that bound the House of Representatives from 1835 to 1844, the Civil War, the Espionage Act of 1917, the Sedition Act of 1918, New York Times Co. v. United States, Woodrow Wilson, Charles Schenck, or Eugene Debs; and, most crucially, if you remain wholly incapable of distinguishing between criticism and restriction.

Donald Trump, at whom Hunt’s quip was aimed, does indeed have instincts toward the First Amendment of which he and his acolytes should be ashamed; he does indeed have a tenuous relationship with the truth; and he does indeed wear a skin so thin as to border on the translucent. But he has not — ever — “attacked the free press”; he has not prevented, or attempted to prevent, the publication of a single printed word; and he has made no attempt whatsoever to change the law that he might do so. Rather, he has repeatedly — and often stupidly — criticized the press corps. The difference between these two actions is the difference between a bad art critic’s savaging a painting in print and a bad art critic’s savaging a painting with a chainsaw. One is the exercise of liberty; the other, vandalism and intimidation.

If the media understand this difference, they are doing an excellent job pretending otherwise. In complaint after complaint, the “press” and “the First Amendment” are held to be synonymous when they are no such thing and cannot logically be so. Thomas Jefferson, who was as reliable a critic of suppression as the early republic played host to, wrote famously that if it were left to him “to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” And yet he also contended that “nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” This represented no contradiction whatsoever. One can believe simultaneously that the press must remain free and that it has built itself into an ersatz clerisy that regards its primary job not as conveying information in as effective a manner as possible but as translating writs for the benighted public, the better to save its soul. If the polls are to be believed, a majority of Americans believes exactly this.

And why wouldn’t they, when it’s made so obvious? Last year, when the White House unveiled an immigration change that it hoped to persuade Congress to pass, CNN’s Jim Acosta showed up in the press room with an indignant look on his face and began to recite poetry from the stalls. It is true that Acosta, a man who seems unable to decide whether he’s a political correspondent on basic cable or a member of the cast of Hamilton, is particularly absurd. But he is by no means an aberration. It is for a good reason that one cannot imagine a member of the mainstream press behaving toward a Democratic administration in the manner that Acosta behaves, and the reason is that he’d never think to do so against his own team.

Sometimes consciously, but most often unwittingly, journalists treat Democrats as normal and Republicans as abnormal and proceed accordingly in their coverage. Once one understands the rules, the whole setup becomes rather amusing. When a headline reads “Lawmaker Involved in Scandal,” one can immediately deduce that the lawmaker is a Democrat. Why? Because if he were a Republican, the story would make that clear in the headline. Without fail, stories that begin with “Republicans pounce” are actually about bad things that Democrats have done or said, while stories about bad things that Republicans have done or said begin with “Republican does or says a bad thing” and proceed to a dry recitation of the facts. A variation on this rule is “Republicans say,” which is used when a Republican says something that is so self-evidently true that, had a Democrat said it, it would have been reported straight. For a neat illustration of how farcical things have become, take a look at the Washington Post’s most recent “fact check,” which helpfully informs its readers that the claimed “one thousand burgers” President Trump bought for the Clemson football team were not, in fact, “piled up a mile high” because, “at two inches each, a thousand burgers would not reach one mile high.”

Democracy dies in darkness, indeed.

Selective political interest is disastrous in its own right. But when combined with the catastrophic historical illiteracy that is rife among the journalistic class, its result is what might best be described as the everything-happening-now-is-new fallacy, which leads almost everybody on cable news and the opinion pages to deem every moment of national irritation unprecedented, to cast all political fights as novel crises, and, provided it is being run by Republicans, to determine that the present Congress is “the worst ever.” Turn on the television and you will learn that our language is the “least civil,” our politics is “the most divided,” and our environment is the “most dangerous.” When a Democrat is president, he is “facing opposition of the kind that no president has had to suffer”; when a Republican is president, he is held to be badly unlike the previous ones, who were, in turn, regarded as a departure from their predecessors. Continually, we are held to be on the verge of descending into anarchy or reinstituting Jim Crow or murdering the marginalized or, a particular favorite of mine, establishing the regime outlined in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Past is prologue, context, and balm. Without it, all is panic.

One of the most toxic consequences of this myopia is that both longstanding problems and bad ideas with a long pedigree come to be discussed in the press as if they were unique to the moment. Early in Donald Trump’s tenure, the Internet was thrown into a flat panic by a host of stories warning that President Trump was marking Loyalty Day. Surely, it was proposed, this was proof of his fascistic aspirations? As it happened, Loyalty Day had been recognized annually since 1958, as the law requires. Similar panics have been started by the news that Trump was bombing Syria without explicit congressional authorization; that he was relying on executive orders to achieve some of what he could not persuade Congress to acquiesce to; that he was detaining illegal immigrants at the border and repelling those who became violent; that he reserved the right to use drones anywhere around the world; that he was amending federal websites to reflect his priorities; and that he liked to play a lot of golf. The wisdom and legality of all of these decisions and behaviors is debatable. But none of them is new. Even Thomas Paine didn’t hope to start the world over again that often.

To be concluded