Media have an important role

“I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy. We need an independent media to hold power to account. Power can be very addictive, and it can be corrosive, and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power.”

Though I never would have thought former president George W. Bush and I would see eye to eye on anything, I couldn’t agree with him more on this statement he made to Matt Lauer on the “Today Show” last week. The suddenly cuddly Bush is showing up everywhere—even on “Ellen,” for heaven’s sake—to promote his new book: “Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors.”

Bush’s comments are in stark contrast to the attitude of the current president, who has proclaimed the media as “the enemy of the people.” I would guess nearly all Donald Trump’s supporters would nod in robotic agreement to the latter leader’s statement. And, since he has picked this fight, as a former journalist and current journalism teacher, I feel obligated to offer a contrary opinion.

What most people characterize as “the media,” sometimes called the “main­stream media,” is likely made up of national news reporters, editors and broadcasters. (And, yes, I know “media” is the plural form of “medium.” For the sake of clarity, however, I will use the word as if it were singular.)

Trump clearly and repeatedly employs the term to describe anyone who reports information that is contrary to his view. He labels anything that disparages or questions him or his administration as “fake news,” even if he has been recorded uttering the exact words he later claims weren’t said. He also offers that he never reads or watches “fake news,” but somehow he immediately knows what has been reported and is soon tweeting like a chickadee.

Of course, Trump is not the first leader or even the first U.S. president to feud with the press. Richard Nixon immediately comes to mind. Two reporters from the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bern­stein, were responsible for uncovering arguably the largest political scandal in our nation’s history. That tiff ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation.

One would be hard pressed to find a historian willing to downplay the significance of what has come to be known as Watergate.

The Trump administration has kicked the hornet’s nest, poked the grizzly bear, or whatever metaphor is preferred, several times and already has been stung and/or bitten by the results. His national security adviser was forced out by reports that he had inappropriate conversations with Russian officials, then lied about their content to the vice-president. Now, the attorney general, the top law-enforcement agent in the nation, is under fire for nearly the same offense.

In the spirit of full disclosure, it must be said that there is bias in the media. Whether an editor or producer chooses to run with a story or shelf it, to mix my own metaphors, is in itself a product of a certain bias.

On the extreme end of the spectrum, that’s why outlets such as Fox News and MSNBC exist. But, I would venture to guess that even the editor of this fine publication makes daily decisions about what stories to print and where they should be placed on the page based on what he perceives to be their importance to readers.

Then again, there is bias everywhere. Whether a person chooses to dine at a Mexican restaurant or a Chinese restaurant; whether a car owner prefers red or blue; whether someone goes to church on Sunday or stays home to work in the yard; even what television news outlets to watch, are all decisions based on personal preference. They are mostly harmless and don’t affect many people.

On a larger scale, however, those biases can taint our perceptions of reality if we are not careful. It is the job of the media to provide us with clarity of vision, especially when it comes to people in power. If power corrupts, as the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely. As our former president said, the crucial role the press plays in keeping a government honest is indeed indispensable.

“One of the things I spent a lot time doing was trying to convince a person like (Russian leader) Vladimir Putin, for example, to accept the notion of an independent press,” Bush said on “Today.” “And it’s kind of hard to, you know, tell others to have an independent, free press when we’re not willing to have one ourselves.”

And, that brings us to perhaps the biggest irony of the current president’s diatribes against the media: the only reason Donald Trump has ascended to the highest office in the land, the single most important contributor to his rise to fame and fortune, and the number one cause his name ever reached household status is the media.

It has been estimated that coverage by the press was worth between $1 billion and $2 billion in free advertising during the campaign. With­out the media, Trump would have ceased to even be a factor in the race.

So, at best, his disingenuous attacks on the proverbial hand that fed him shows a complete lack of gratitude. At worst, it is a dangerous ploy to keep in the dark the very voters who put their faith in him enough to elect him. An attack on the free press is typically the first step of a despotic leader who does not trust those people over which he rules. Love them or hate them, members of the media are historically the only safeguards of a truly democratic society.

Bob Woelk teaches English and journalism at Hillsboro Middle/High School. He can be reached at woelk@embarqmail.