Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The "free" press

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It was reported yesterday that Donald Trump summoned a variety of executives and on-air talent from five news-reporting organizations to Trump Tower for a meeting that one participant later described (in more colorful terms than I will repeat here) as a dressing-down, primarily focused on their (mis)treatment of Donald Trump the candidate during the campaign.

Many of the participants in this meeting were expecting to have an off-the-record discussion about Trump's plans for media availability once he becomes president in January.  Traditionally, the White House has made arrangements that enable the various media outlets to pool resources for coverage so that they can bear witness to important events without each maintaining a 24/7 presence.  These arrangements acknowledge the importance of a free press in a democratic society, particularly as it relates to the accountability function.

Instead, what they got was--reportedly--a 40-minute harangue about supposed anti-Trump bias in their reporting.

I am gravely concerned about the media.  I am, of course, old enough to remember the George W. Bush presidency.  After the events of 9/11/2001, Bush was given extremely wide latitude by a credulous press that was fearful of losing their access to White House personnel--something that in theory they need to be able to do their jobs.  In addition, the Bush administration used "embedding" of reporters with military units in order to induce favorable media coverage, with disastrous results (at least as far as the role of the media in our democratic society is concerned).

That was bad enough.  But what's happening now is worse.

Two events from last Friday illustrate the problem.

Late on Friday, word came down that Trump had agreed to settle the claims against him in the "Trump University" fraud case, for $25 million.  While that settlement carries not express admission of wrongdoing, there are some important factors to consider:  The plaintiffs in that case were only seeking $40 million.  The $25 million includes payment of a $1 million fine to the State of New York for violating its laws against sham educational opportunities.  Trump thus paid 60% of the amount the plaintiffs were seeking in a case that had been scheduled for trial only 10 days after the settlement occurred—which is very nearly as close to an admission of guilt as you can get without actually saying the words.

Even later on Friday, Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton, the smash-hit Broadway musical that centers on the life of Alexander Hamilton.  The attendance was notable for two reasons; first, Pence was booed by the audience (not by the actors, as some alt-right fake news outlets reported).  Second, after the show, the star read a short, respectful statement to Pence advising him that they were fearful of the new administration's history and plans and urging him to consider the views of others, particularly including the LGBTQ community, whom Pence has famously and unrepentantly attacked over the course of his career.

Later, Trump tweeted about how disrespectful the Hamilton cast had been toward Pence.  Never mind how fallacious those tweets happened to be.  The media ate it up--allowing it to dominate the headlines for most of three days.

Look, I don't expect the media to skip the Hamilton story.  It's an interesting story.

But the fraud settlement got virtually no media coverage,* and I'm struggling to understand why.

* My morning news show of choice, CBS This Morning, devoted about 15 minutes of its first hour on Monday to the Hamilton story, but did not mention the fraud settlement at all.

If Hillary Clinton had just been elected, and had just paid $25 million to settle a fraud claim against her, what are the odds the media would (largely) ignore the story?  There would be inch-high headlines in the New York Times, top of the front page.  After all, when James Comey wrote a letter to Congress 11 days prior to the election saying that the FBI had discovered some new emails that might have a bearing on its investigation of Clinton's email server, the Times devoted 100% of its above-the-fold front-page space to the "story."

Meanwhile, Trump essentially admits to conduct that if he were less rich and less famous probably would have seen him indicted for fraud, and our "free" press can do no better than a yawn.

Trump is already the least-transparent candidate in modern political history, having refused to release his tax returns.  When presidents are elected, they traditionally put their assets into a "blind trust"--every investment they own is sold, and the funds are handed over to a trustee who manages those investments without the president's knowledge or input.  Trump has refused to do that.  Instead, he is turning his financial empire over to his children, whom--by the way--he is planning to include as close advisers.  Already reports are rolling in about foreign dignitaries who are seeking to curry favor with Trump by doing him business favors like booking rooms in his hotels and greenlighting projects in which he's involved.

These acts are truly unprecedented.  Even if past presidents weren't predisposed to recognize and avoid the potential for conflict, they were at least motivated to avoid the shame and political scandal that would result if they did not appear to be working solely for the country and not for their own personal financial advantage.  Not Trump.  He is giving every indication that he plans to use the next four years to line his pockets at every opportunity, the country be damned.  Nowhere is that intention more evident than in his plan to live most of the time at his residence in Trump Tower--presumably so he can continue to manage his business affairs.

We deserve better than a part-time President.

But we will never get better than that unless the media do their job, fearlessly and with only one constituency in mind:  the truth.

Unfortunately, after their dressing-down, it appears that they are instead going to serve as yes-men for this fraud of a man who has somehow slipped into a chair he should never have gotten near.

What are they afraid of?  They have all the power, if only they would simply use it.

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