Institution #2 that Failed in the 2016 Presidential Election: The Media
Second in the triad that could have blocked Trump’s rise to power
The worst problem facing the United States today is free speech run amok. Americans are single-minded in their devotion to this pillar of democracy without fully understanding that the First Amendment constitutes only one of two essential sets of principles that govern political discourse in healthy democratic societies. The second is codes of ethics in the news media.
We must abide by the sacred injunction of free speech—or else we will lose our democracy. That much is true. But ethical standards governing speech in the media are equally important to the survival of democracy as ironclad constitutional protections of freedom of expression.
But for Fox News and other demagogic right-wing media
This observation about the primacy of codes of ethics in reporting the news—and opinionating about it—brings me to the presidential election of 2016 and the role played by Fox News, Newsmax, Breitbart, and other unscrupulous right-wing media in its outcome. These news outlets swindled the people, sweeping Trump into office, because they angrily, and profitably, demagogued about immigration, liberals, race, and crime, among other issues. For one thing, they proclaimed that Trump was going to rescue America from takedown by marauding socialists when in fact he turned out to be the grand corrupter of the people’s Constitution, especially its life-sustaining systems of free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of presidential power.
This essay is the second of three that examines how a dangerous demagogue like Trump came to executive power in the United States. The first, entitled “The Three Institutions that Failed in the 2016 Presidential Election,” spotlights the Republican Party.
These media outlets are not partially responsible for delivering the nation the most destructive president in U.S. history. They are not indirectly implicated in this historically tragic outcome. They are entirely guilty.
In both tort and criminal law, judges and juries often apply the “but-for test” to determine guilt or innocence. The test asks, "but for the existence of X, would Y have occurred?"
In the case of the election of Trump to the presidency in 2016, here’s a forensic truth: But for the fearmongering, hatemongering, xenophobia, and lies (demagoguery, that is) of Fox News, Newsmax, Breitbart, and other unethical American news media, Trump never would have entered the Oval Office; mayhem, terror, and death never would have struck the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021; and today our democracy would not be spiraling into despair and breakdown.
If a dozen ethicists were sitting in the jury box judging these media outlets, the gavel would come down on all of them. Guilty, guilty, guilty—the foreperson of the jury would read aloud to the courtroom. After this, similar to the recent $965 million ruling of a jury in Connecticut against conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, the jury of ethicists would levy severe fines upon the media totaling multiple billions of dollars.
The NPR Ethics Handbook
To further explore the crucial interaction between free speech and codes of ethics in determining the fate of democracies, I invite you to imagine a scenario in which Fox, Breitbart, and the others had scrupulously adhered to the NPR Ethics Handbook in 2015 and 2016 when reporting on Trump.
To restate the question at hand: Are codes of ethics in the media equally important to the preservation of democracy as constitutional protections of free speech?
I searched far and wide online for Fox News’ code of journalistic ethics and found nothing. I emailed the station—without a reply.
National Public Radio has the most impressive standards of journalistic integrity of any major news organization in the United States. Below are snapshots of the station’s guiding principles, as derived verbatim from the handbook, provided here for the purpose of our thought experiment. If Fox News, Newsmax, and Breitbart, and other media, including radio shows like the Rush Limbaugh Show and the Alex Jones Show, had operated under codes of ethics similar to this one, would Donald Trump have become president of the United States?
Our purpose is to pursue the truth. Diligent verification is critical. We take great care to ensure that statements of fact in our journalism are both correct and in context.
We take seriously our democratic role as watchdogs, holding the powerful accountable as we hold ourselves to the core principles of honesty, integrity, independence, accuracy, contextual truth, transparency, respect and fairness for the people we serve and the people we cover.
To tell the truest story possible, it is essential that we treat those we interview and report on with scrupulous fairness, guided by a spirit of professionalism. We make every effort to gather responses from those who are the subjects of criticism, unfavorable allegations or other negative assertions in our stories.
In our reporting, we rigorously challenge both the claims we encounter and the assumptions we bring. We avoid hyperbole and sensational conjecture. We edit and present information honestly, without deception.
Everyone affected by our journalism deserves to be treated with decency and compassion. We are civil in our actions and words, avoiding arrogance and hubris. We listen to others. When we ask tough questions, we do so to seek answers — not confrontations.
Our work, whether on the air, online, through podcasts, video, or in any other form, aspires to the heights of public service.
NPR’s ethical approach to conveying the news is compelling proof that media can enjoy the right of free speech while simultaneously upholding ethical standards designed to preserve honesty, truth, fairness, respect, accuracy, citizenship, and the other vital democratic values without which our 246-year experiment cannot long subsist.
Liberal media are not entirely blameless in the circus of invective and sensationalism that galvanized Trump’s rise to power. Here I am examining only the most unethical—and therefore the most culpable.
The fourth estate
In the mid-19th century Scottish historian and political philosopher Thomas Carlyle wrote that the press was the “Fourth Estate” of government, forming a quartet with the other essential branches to protect and defend a nation’s constitution through the exercise of checks and balances. He went further, arguing that the “Fourth Estate [was] more important far than they all.”
I know highly ethical, liberal journalists who defensively reject Carlyle’s proposition that newspapers and other public media are vital watchdogs of truth and democracy. They claim instead that their only duty, as press people, is to fight for free speech. If we worship at the altar of the First Amendment at all times, in all places, and in all cases, they seem to believe, an invisible hand will steer the ship of democracy to progress and safety.
These journalists are tragically wrong. They are overlooking the fact, borne out by history, that codes of ethics governing speech are essential to the survival of free government. They are unaware, perhaps, of the historic fact that when demagoguery rules the roost, constitutions and democracies crash to the ground and burn, violently.
A failure of journalistic ethics gave us Trump in 2016 because we, the citizens, allowed the watchdogs to morph into demagogues. We decided, it seems, that the pursuit of truth, honesty, and fairness in the media are sacrificial lambs to be laid meekly upon the high altar of “Free Speech!”
Today our democracy is in a state of demagogic decline. We got here because in the 1980s and 1990s we fell victim to a dangerous, laissez-faire, quasi-religious absolutism regarding the conduct of speech in the media. It culminated in Trump.
There is a better way to live in a democracy. Going forward, we must defend codes of ethics in media speech with the same vigor we defend freedom of speech. The two are synergistic and inseparable. If we do not defend both, demagogues will gain ascendancy over our government, and, as Trump has vividly taught, they will topple the Constitution. What will happen to free speech then?