We members of the media probably sound a little self-serving when we complain about constant attacks on press freedom.
Press freedom is a sacred democratic value, enshrined right there in the Constitution! we huff to whoever will listen.
Needless to say, lots of Americans remain unconvinced.
As I noted last week, a recent NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll found that 4 in 10 Republicans believe the United States has too greatly expanded freedom of the press. Since then, an American Press Institute survey found that 6 in 10 Republicans believe news organizations primarily just prevent political leaders from doing their jobs.
Fed a steady diet of media vilification (served up by both left and right), Americans are apparently unmoved by citations of political texts that feel far removed from their daily lives. Maybe, they think, efforts to “open up our libel laws,” dismissals of the lamestream media as “fake news” and even threats of violence against journalists could do the country some good.
To those indifferent to abstract political ideals, let me offer a more practical reason to be alarmed by assaults on media freedom: the fact that the government can, and inevitably will, screw up.
Events over recent weeks suggest that Republicans’ war on the media should not be viewed in isolation. It’s part of a broader strategy to discredit and disempower any independent voice trying, however imperfectly, to hold politicians to account.
Take, for example, the relentless attacks on the Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan federal agency created in 1974 precisely so that Congress and the public could rely on technical expertise from independent analysts with no dog in the fight.
The CBO issues dozens of bill scores and reports each year, and no scores have come with higher stakes this year than its assessments of Republicans’ Obamacare repeal plans. Sensing that the news on the Senate’s latest bill would be bad, though, Republicans have been doing everything they can to smear the character, motives and competence of the agency. (Late Monday the bill was struck by what may turn out to be a death blow; two more Republican senators announced their opposition, leaving the legislation with no path to passage, at least in its current form.)
In March, asked about a CBO score forecasting that the House GOP’s health-care bill would cause tens of millions of Americans to lose their insurance, former House speaker and Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich called the federal agency “corrupt” and “dishonest.”
White House officials ramped up their own attacks over subsequent months. This past week the White House criticized the accuracy of the CBO in a video that misspelled the word “inaccurately.” (You can’t make this stuff up.)
The last straw came in an op-ed published by The Post over the weekend, when two Trump officials preemptively declared that whatever the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported on the Senate Republicans’ health-care bill, “the CBO’s estimates will be little more than fake news.”
That is, now the CBO is being slurred with the nastiest comparison of all: to the media.
The nation’s independent federal statistical agencies have lately found themselves in similar crosshairs. They have been praised when their numbers reflect favorably upon Republicans but mercilessly attacked when their data show otherwise.
The nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics, the internal watchdog tasked with helping executive-branch officials avoid conflicts of interest, has also been repeatedly and unfairly accused of partisanship under this administration. The neutering of this agency has made it much harder to ensure that federal officials are making decisions in the best interests of the country — an embarrassment at home and abroad.
“I think we are pretty close to a laughingstock at this point,” Walter M. Shaub Jr., the departing head of the agency, told the New York Times over the weekend.
And then there’s the Trump administration’s unrelenting attacks on an independent federal judiciary, the last best hope against government excess and impropriety.
The common message from Trump officials and co-partisans on Capitol Hill through all these actions: Trust us, and us alone. Anyone who contradicts us is spouting #fakenews.
Maybe this plan will buy Republicans some time, but they can’t outrun bad news forever. At some point, presumably, members of the public will notice if they, oh, lose their health insurance. Just because President Trump declares a Russia story or the unemployment rate “fake” doesn’t make it so.
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