Search This Blog


Media criticism an American political tradition

Democrat Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has objected to elected officials who “continuously berate the media” as the right of free expression is “enshrined in the First Amendment,” a position both contradictory and, in his case, somewhat hypocritical.

Edwards made these comments on his monthly call-in radio show, in apparent reference to Republican Pres. Donald Trump’s frequent castigation of some national media outlets for the quality of their news stories. No president ever (but perhaps now with technological advancements to make direct public communication easy) has so consistently berated the fourth estate for supposed inadequacies in impartial reporting.

But if Edwards saw anything unique or inconsistent with American political history, then there’s much he doesn’t know. Presidents and other prominent politicians throughout history have criticized the media – and gone beyond just that.

Perhaps the first instance came just years after the First Amendment came into effect. Then, Congress allowed the president to jail dissenting newspaper editors, and Pres. John Adams did just that. The law permitting that lapsed, and the evolution of judicial review made future attempts to make something like that legally impossible, although Pres. Abraham Lincoln stretched presidential war-making powers to do the same thing.

Whether of congressional or presidential origin, the practice hasn’t resumed. Regardless, these kinds of elected officials often have delivered unsparing media criticism in recent decades. Vice Pres. Spiro Agnew in 1969 laid into media reporting on two separate occasions. And, lest Edwards think Louisiana governors haven’t joined the fun, Gov. Huey Long habitually called the media (essentially then only newspapers) “lying newspapers” and got a compliant Legislature after he left office to place a tax on them, later declared unconstitutional.

Presidents have gone farther than just insults to shape coverage. Both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon tried to manipulate coverage by controlling access. Operatives for the president for whom Edwards as a delegate cast party nomination votes, Barack Obama, made threats against journalists who actually shared his ideology for things they wrote.

And not that the Edwards Administration is above trying to influence media outlets it sees as uncooperative. Edwards’ Chief of Staff Mark Cooper accused Shreveport’s KEEL-AM radio of spreading “misinformation that's put out there … about the governor.” It used the type of line in a note criticizing a blog post of mine that contained only factual information (I graciously supplemented the post subsequently with the communiqué’s contending assertions).

But it’s the inherent internal contradiction that makes Edwards’ opinion all the more interesting. At that moment when he said that about politicians, he himself was taking advantage of the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech, which he then immediately praised. So why should he get to take advantage of that and yet think it improper for another elected official to do so?

Is Edwards saying the media should be immune from criticism? (Then why did his operative criticize KEEL?) Does he think the right of free expression so fragile that some agents of it can’t withstand sustained critiques? (Then why did he speak so confidently about the First Amendment?) Or is it as simple as he agrees with the leftist slant generally present in the American media as a whole, circulating a bias with the potential to aid his political fortunes (even as research indicates the impact of that bias typically muted)?

None of these arguments are valid enough to invalidate the right of a public official to speak as he will about what appears in the media and the outlets responsible for that – including Edwards’ right. The media aren’t some public good with purely civic-minded motives; they’re people with their own agendas. If nothing else, without actually engaging in it, even the threat of calling out the media for what they produce enters the mix of checks and balances that ensures representative democracy works maximally – whether from a governor, this column, a president, or any other source.

I can’t say why Edwards would argue less of the First Amendment is good for the First Amendment. I can say that if a politician wants to deliver a barrage of media criticism, that’s not a bad thing.

No comments: