For four years, the Donald Trump administration promoted lies daily in press releases, in appearances on television, and from the bully pulpit available to his staffers in the James S.Brady Press Briefing Room or on the macadam drive outside of the West Wing. But Trump also did so through a number of social media platforms—especially Twitter. Those lies bounced around inside informational silos like Fox News, OAN, Newsmax, and more. The more they bounced, the more attention they got and the more believable they became to millions of Americans. Even when CNN, the New York Times, or other large media outlets pointed out the lies, they did so by repeating the lies first. But Donald Trump is merely a symptom. He’s the result of forty years of the government and corporate media owners engaged in a systemic destruction of the First Amendment and free press.
The truth is politicians have been attacking the free press for decades. But they really picked up their pace when Richard Nixon got into office. He tried to leverage a foreign government to the bargaining table during the Vietnam War in order to secure his election. He was notorious for trying to manipulate the media, and when he couldn’t do it to his satisfaction, he put some of his minions, including Roger Ailes, the future architect of Fox News, to the task of reinventing the media to his liking. Nixon resigned. Roger Ailes stuck around. Ailes then found his success with two key politicians in the 1980s—Ronald Reagan and Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell. His main media accomplice became Rupert Murdoch.
With Reagan, Ailes found a man who would systematically deconstruct the media, allowing multiple media ownership, deregulating the airwaves, and ultimately getting rid of the Fairness Doctrine. Reagan, in turn, credited Murdoch and the New York Post for his 1980 victory in the presidential election. Reagan later waived a prohibition against owning a television station and a newspaper in the same market so Murdoch could continue to control the Post and the Boston Herald while he expanded his television presence in both markets. With McConnell, Ailes found the key political ally who would put party over country and, as planned, would help out friends like Murdoch and eventually Sinclair broadcasting.
Most of the places I have worked during the past thirty-five years have been bought, sold, or closed. The first newspaper I worked for while still in college was the Kingdom-Daily SunGazette in Fulton, Missouri—a town made famous by the book Kings Row and also famous for being the site of Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech. That newspaper no longer exists.
The newspaper I joined when I left college, in Conroe, Texas, the Conroe Courier, is a shell of its former itself. I recently visited the offices. They are closed. Gone. That newspaper was bought and is run from outside of Conroe. Consequently, it has little presence in the local community. The newspaper and television stations I worked at in Laredo, Texas, the Laredo News and KLDO-TV, are no longer around. WKYT-TV in Lexington, Kentucky, which afforded me my first chance to go to the White House briefing room, is the only place I worked that hasn’t changed dramatically.
There are many causes for the collapse of these newspapers and television stations.
Arguments can be made for cultural, economic, and a variety of political factors leading to their downfall. These are all relevant and will be explored at length. But many of these factors are merely symptomatic of an overriding cause—government intervention. Although the press was set up to be independent and the public’s best chance of holding politicians accountable to the public, during the past 200 years, governmental contempt for the press and economic pressures have led to thousands of tiny cuts in press revenue and transparency and ultimately have lessened the ability to hold government accountable—making many papers, at times, almost unreadable.
The government has removed requirements for public notice ads. It has made public information inaccessible except through expensive litigation or cost-prohibitive reproduction charges. It ended the fairness doctrine. It sold the public on that move by claiming government action would assist free speech. That was the real coup. In the end, the government turned around and blamed the media owners for the problems—though it was the owners that bought the government con—or helped spread it for the sake of their own bottom line.
The government has hobbled these efforts by legislation, by regulation, and by bribery. Holding out access like a journalistic carrot on a stick, presidents have silenced individual journalists, while legislative and regulatory efforts have reduced the number of independent media companies and thus the overall number of reporters.
I’ve worked in television, radio, and newspaper; on the internet; and for magazines. My life has been reporting on multiple platforms and on a variety of beats and has taken me across the world and back—and luckily on someone else’s nickel because working reporters still do not make squat.
I’m not the only reporter to have done this, but the constriction of the news business has led to far fewer of us—and thus far less institutional knowledge and as a consequence less comprehensive reporting. It used to be that you had to have a great deal of experience in order to be assigned the White House press beat. Today, kids are hired right out of college and paid low wages to handle what is one of the most important beats in the world—covering the president of the United States. Is it any wonder the institution is looked on with such disdain?
From the moment I became a reporter, the government has systematically tried to destroy independent reporting. The government’s intended rise of corporate journalism—as Ben Bagdikian told us in The Media Monopoly—has assisted in destroying the Fourth Estate and free speech.
Today, there are fewer reporters to cover more people than at any time in my life. The prime example is in Laredo. When I moved there in 1984 to be a county reporter for the Laredo News, earning my first chance to cover a presidential race, there were two daily newspapers, three network- affiliated television stations, and several radio stations servicing a population of100,000 people. Since it was on the Texas–Mexico border, there were also two Spanish-speaking newspapers and one Hispanic television station.
Today? One newspaper, one television station, and 300,000 people.
Excerpted from "Free the Press: The Death of American Journalism and How to Revive It
Brian J. Karem is an award-winning journalist, author and speaker. His latest book is Free the Press: The Death of American Journalism and How to Revive It. He has worked in both newspaper and television as an investigative journalist covering politics, crime, refugee issues, and state and local news. He is the recipient of the National Press Club’s Freedom of the Press Award as well as the prestigious Pieringer Award. He has testified in support of a federal shield law to protect reporters and recently testified to help pass shield law legislation in Virginia. He is the founder of the “First Jailbird’s Club,” a group of 13 reporters who went to jail to defend the identity of a confidential source. Karem appears regularly as a political analyst on television, served as the senior White House correspondent for Playboy, currently writes a weekly column for Salon.Com. He’s the former president of the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Press Association, is a member of the White House Press Corps and National Press Club, and launched the popular podcast, “Just Ask the Question,” in 2018.