A press obsessed with sensation: President Obama diagnoses the cancer on American democracy
In his press conference last night, President Obama pointed to a path forward. It's a path he has been pointing to for some time since the conclusion of the election that saw the loser of the vote ascent to the highest office in the land through the means of a constitutional system originally designed to protect slave states.
The President lambasted the media's obsession with juicy tidbits in routine emails hacked by Russia and leaked through Wikileaks just to sensationalize the election, at the expense of real issues.
I'm finding it a little curious that everybody is suddenly acting surprised that this looked like it was disadvantaging Hillary Clinton because you guys wrote about it every day. Every single leak. About every little juicy tidbit of political gossip -- including John Podesta's risotto recipe. This was an obsession that dominated the news coverage.
The President did not mince words about the culpability of the Russian government, and indeed Vladimir Putin himself, in the unprecedented political interference through hacking of Democratic emails that at the end of the day turned up nothing unusual or illegal. But he drove to the heart of the problem that allowed our election to be swayed by two-bit, unsophisticated Russian hacks (in both senses of the word): an American press thoroughly willing to be Putin's pawns.
37 percent of Republican voters approve of Putin. Over a third of Republican voters approve of Vladimir Putin, the former head of the KGB. Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave.
And how did that happen? It happened in part because, for too long, everything that happens in this town, everything that’s said is seen through the lens of "does this help or hurt us relative to Democrats, or relative to President Obama?" And unless that changes, we’re going to continue to be vulnerable to foreign influence, because we’ve lost track of what it is that we’re about and what we stand for.
This isn't the first time President Obama has issued these warnings. He warned of the same thing in his interview with The Daily Show's Trevor Noah, as well as in his previous press conference after the election.
There is a basic diagnosis that the President has made here: in spite of the despicable nature of the way that Putin has behaved, American institutions - namely, the free press - was fully empowered to render Putin's power-play irrelevant. The press could have chosen to inform the American public that there was nothing illegal in the leaked documents, and moved on to covering the issues and Trump's characteristic incompetence for office. Instead, they went for breathless, endless coverage of sensationalized leaks, poking and prodding them for an angle - any angle warranted or not - that helped their narrative of Hillary Clinton's supposed lack of trustworthiness.
When a vital organ in a body begins to devour and consume itself and the rest of its host, it is a cancer.
It bears mentioning here that Donald Trump and his cronies weren't the only ones benefiting from this cancer on our democracy that was press' obsession with Clinton and DNC emails. Leftist reactionaries whipped up by anger from Bernie Sanders raised as much noise created as much consternation over these non-news as Trump and the Republicans.
As President Obama pointed out, to the hypocrisy of the press - and many now left feigning ignorance about Russian involvement prior to the election - his administration was forthcoming with the American people about the Russian hacks long before the conclusion of the election. Our media, however, chose to ignore the assessment of our intelligence agencies much the same way Donald Trump had, and proceeded to milk every juicy minute out of these nothingburgers they could muster.
The founders gave the press unchecked freedoms that they did not even reserve for any government institution because the press has the responsibility to tell the truth, not fit sensationalized nontroversies to fit into the narratives it pre-selects. The press has unchecked power in this country because they have the responsibility to parse truth from fiction and to tell the truth no matter the price.
We can blame Russia for helping its puppet get to the White House, and we should. But we cannot avoid the searing reality that it was the catastrophic failure of the American press that allowed for this election to be hijacked by small men like Putin and Trump.
In the digital age, we will never stop all hacks and leaks. The only question is whether the institution of the free press will rise to the gravity of the moment an unshackle itself from a factless reality of narratives and counter-narratives. The only question is whether in print and on our airwaves and in our social media feeds, our press can ever be counted on again to assume the role the founders envisioned for it rather than a bunch of highly paid, cocktail-party hungry, access-obsessed, heat-missile seeking, journalistic failures.
If our press does not rise to this occasion and excise this cancer that it has created, we must embark on a long journey to do it ourselves.
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