What Is the Role of a Free Press In a Democracy?

From a New York Times story by Richard Stengel headlined “Press Gangs”:

According to a recent poll, trust in the media to “fully, accurately and fairly” report the news is at an all-time low. And no wonder: A former president has tried ( often successfully) to make the term “fake news” synonymous with news. This comes amid traditional media’s economic decline.

Theories — and questions — abound. What is the role of a free press in a democracy? Is objectivity possible, or even desirable? What is the responsibility of journalists to protect democracy or expose those who undermine it? Some see the press as under threat; to others, it is itself the threat.

In UNCOVERED: How the Media Got Cozy With Power, Abandoned Its Principles, and Lost the People (Center Street, 201 pp., $29), Steve Krakauer floats a number of reasons as to why the news media has shifted from “reality to reality show”: proximity to power, doom narratives and a Trump addiction.

But Krakauer doesn’t blame ideology for what he regards as flawed coverage. It is, rather, geography — the insularity of echo-chamber “Acela media,” most of whom, he asserts, don’t own a gun or know anyone who does. Instead, they practice “helicopter” journalism — swooping into red states like amateur anthropologists. At least the right-wing media, he says, is open about its biases.

Krakauer believes that many of the excesses he decries stem from a kind of collective guilt about Trump’s 2016 victory — and the liberal press’s determination to never repeat the mistake.

The reason for this, he suggests, is that these journalists see Trump as a unique threat to democracy. Krakauer, like many conservative media critics, cites the journalism of the 1950s and 1960s as a kind of objective oasis.

CITY OF NEWSMEN: Public Lies and Professional Secrets in Cold War Washington (University of Chicago, 295 pp., $30.00), by Kathryn McGarr, provides a corrective to this nostalgia. Indeed, her deeply reported look at Washington between the 1940s and the 1970s exposes this idealization as dangerously naïve. The “Cronkite Consensus” was, she argues, manufactured by media elites, liberal internationalists who believed in the importance of preserving and extending American power and influence.

“At the supposed height of the era of objective journalism,” McGarr writes, “the news was subjectively and consciously crafted.” Although a common critique of today’s media is that journalists and the “deep state” are too enmeshed, McGarr demonstrates that such coziness is nothing new. During the Cold War, a shared sense of responsibility existed not just to inform the public but to protect them. “Many reporters,” she says, “were willing to prioritize citizenship over scoops.”

Vietnam and Watergate changed everything: The gentlemanly code of coverage was shattered by the brazenness of government lies. The press corps became more Ivy League; at the same time, efforts began to reform the profession’s racial and sexual segregation — and McGarr notes that the early Black press was willing to question authority more than the white boys’ club. Journalists became more adversarial, more skeptical of official messaging. Ironically, she claims, it was this post-Watergate hostility that would trigger right-wing antipathy to the media.

Batya Ungar-Sargon begins BAD NEWS: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy (Encounter, 302 pp., $28.99) with the Penny Press revolution of the 19th century, in which newspapers reduced their prices to render their papers universally affordable. Journalists tended to be working-class themselves, she writes, and were proud to be on the side of the everyman rather than any one political party or figure. The press baron Joseph Pulitzer boasted, “Our aristocracy is the aristocracy of labor.”

To Ungar-Sargon, “wokeness” is the civil religion of wealthy elites. She defines the frequently weaponized word as the endorsement of “race as the most important and inescapable facet of America life, reducing America’s past and present to a binary” of oppressors and victims. This embrace of America as “an unrepentant white supremacist state,” she claims, is particularly attractive to liberals because it allows them to feel less guilty about the current economic and class inequality, in which they are complicit.

Her argument is primarily an economic one. Ungar-Sargon sees the embrace of wokeness as a function of an insular press’s abandonment of the little guy to court more affluent readers who can buy expensive subscriptions and enjoy luxury car ads. Advertising dollars, not ideology, drive the commitment to progressivism — a century-long shift from a press that aspired to transcend class to one that has abandoned all objectivity in order to focus on wealthy audiences. This, in turn, has led to the abandonment of the more working-class perspective and traditional objectivity.

Margaret Sullivan was the fifth public editor of The New York Times and later a media columnist for The Washington Post. NEWSROOM CONFIDENTIAL: Lessons (and Worries) From an Ink-Stained Life (St. Martin’s, 278 pp., $28.99) is a memoir, but also an extended homily on the meaning and purpose of journalism. Sullivan’s evolution from an old-school, just-the-facts reporter to one who has become a passionate advocate for journalism with a pro-democracy bias was fueled by the rise of Donald Trump and his relentless assault on the press. She sees the diminishing trust in the media and the success of authoritarian attacks on her industry as an existential crisis.

Her argument is clear: Journalism is in the public interest and the public interest is preserving American democracy, which can only be built on a shared set of facts. But she wonders if our media ecosystem has become so polluted with mis- and disinformation that we can’t recognize truth — or facts — when they are in front of us. In Sullivan’s view, the right-wing media is not only promoting false narratives, but undermining an even more fundamental idea — that there are a set of facts on which we can all agree. Forget profits and prizes, she says, the press “has to reorient itself, framing its core purpose as serving democracy.” This very fight, in other words, must become the most vital journalistic beat of all.

Richard Stengel served in the Obama administration as under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. His most recent book is “Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It.”

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