On January 17, 2018, in a speech on the Senate floor, Jeff Flake did not address the 45th President of the United States. He talked about him, but not to him. Instead, he spoke to the Senate directly. He called them to task (again) for not standing up and being the balance to the power of the Executive Branch that the Founding Fathers intended. In this speech he spoke specifically of 45's habit of undermining America's media. 45 uses the term 'Fake News' daily, any time he feels that he doesn't like something that the press has said or written. He called the news media an "Enemy of the People", and Senator Flake compared that to Josef Stalin's approach to the media.
It is a universal truth (though I don't know the validity of it) that if you put a frog into water and slowly turn the heat up to boiling, he will sit in the water until he cooks, never noticing the change in temperature. This is the metaphor most commonly used for people's tendency to allow harm to be done to them as long as it is done incrementally. First you take one right away, then another, then push it a bit further. This is how it is done in the dark novel Animal Farm. And, this is what I'm afraid of happening today. If 45 makes it a habit to belittle the press, and then starts pushing for laws to be written to curb their freedom, slowly but surely he'll be able to silence our free press. On January 10, 2018 45 announced during a public portion of a cabinet meeting that he would look at America's libel laws, calling them a sham. (Trump Renews Pledge to 'Take a Strong Look' at Libel Laws – New York Times, Michael M Grynbaum, January 10, 2018) Quote from the meeting: ""You can't say things that are false, knowingly false, and be able to smile as money pours into your bank account." NPR pointed out that according to the Washington Post, 45 had made over 2000 false or misleading claims at the time of that speech. That is an average of 5.6 claims a day, so the number is bound to have risen by this time.
I was Tweeting with my younger brother the other day. He had commented about something that the Huffington Post wrote. I asked if anybody, including HuffPost, takes them seriously as a journalistic presence. He said that he wasn't sure, but that all Apple products feature HuffPost in the news feed by default. He was commenting about how people get their news and how they react to it, rather than he, himself, reacting to something HuffPost had written. Still, this brings up a larger point. If Americans in general are being driven to unreliable news sources, then this could be a problem. First of all, we are misinformed. Secondly, it's only natural that public opinion about the media and press are going to be negative. I don't real the Huffington Post for unrelated reasons, but I do question their integrity and how much they can be relied upon.
A nonprofit in the US, News Literacy Project, has a stated goal of working with educators and journalists to teach middle and high schoolers how to recognize fake news. They report that through their virtual classroom, schools from all 50 states and D.C. are using their program to help students separate fact from fiction. I applaud this effort. I feel that Twitter and Facebook need to push this sort of thing to students and adults on their platforms. We are the ones who are voting, we are the ones who need to know what the facts are. I'm not telling every adult in the nation to dump Trump, but I am asking that we politely ask him not to act like an evil dictator. I'm also asking that they question him when he makes blanket statements about the free press, one of the main things that separates us from totalitarian regimes.
I would like for us all to draw a more definitely line between the free press, who strive to operate with integrity, and other forms of media who do not hold fact-checking and the like higher than advertising dollars and clicks. This brings everything back to us – we, the people. Are we clicking on those headlines that are outrageous? That counts toward advertising dollars and gives them incentive to continue operating that way. Are we sharing stories without thinking about whether or not they are true? That puts the blame squarely on us. A reporter can write whatever they want; if you share it then YOU are the one propagating it. I admit that I don't know where to go from here. I'm not savvy enough to understand how legislation could possibly address this, particularly without endangering the free press that does have a commitment to telling the facts as they are. And I don't have enough faith in humanity to believe that we will straighten up our act and pay attention. The idea of News Literacy Project partnering with social media giants seems the best path forward, along with the makers of the news feeds that our devices provide to us. If we could convince Twitter, Facebook, Google and Apple that they have a responsibility to help educate their customers, that could work wonders.
Recently, it was reported (and disputed) that 45 had questioned why we would allow immigrants from "Shithole" nations like those in Africa, when Norway would be a much better country to receive them from. As much as 45 has lied as a president – beginning with his inauguration day – I have no reason to believe him when he states that he did not use that word. He, of course, demanded that the media was printing false information. I was bothered by all of this enough that I emailed my US Senator, John Cornyn, asking him about it. He responded, but not directly to my question. I'm certain that what I received was a template letter that best fit the concern I expressed in my email. I hope that somebody somewhere is keeping track of how many times people inquire about this. His response, though, wasn't without merit. It did confirm that he at least understands some of what we expect from him as our Senator. Here's the relevant part:
To alleviate the dangers inherent in centralized power, the U.S. Constitution establishes three separate, but equal, branches of government: the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary. Our Founding Fathers developed a system of checks and balances to prevent the accumulation of excessive power in any single branch. Within this system, Congress has the duty to provide critical oversight of the executive branch and determine how taxpayer dollars are spent.
I take this responsibility seriously and am committed to working with the Trump Administration to ensure the will of the American people is heard and the interests of all Texans are represented. I believe open government is an essential requirement of democracy. Transparency allows citizens to view how government operates, permits an honest exchange of information that ensures government accountability, and upholds the American ideal that government never rules without the consent of the governed.
At least I get the sense that he understands that Congress is supposed to balance the power and not let one man or branch have too much. Though I may not agree with everything he does, he is nobody's fool. I don't know what is going on in the Senate investigation into the Russian involvement in the US 2016 presidential election, or the House's or Mueller's. He's in a better place to be privy to that information and I feel comfortable that he is taking all of this seriously. I also feel that he takes the issue of the free press seriously.
In response to all of this I have:
- Communicated with Senator John Cornyn (as stated above)
- Communicated with News Literacy Project about teaming with social media providers
- Written this post, which likely nobody will ever read, but at least I've gathered my thoughts and references and I have them at my fingertips should they be needed.