The Anti-democratic Reflex to News We Don’t Like

by Richard E. Vatz

A presidential scholar named Thomas Cronin spoke at the University of Pittsburgh almost 40 years ago on a piece he wrote for a Duke Law School journal. His speakership has had a lasting effect on me. The piece was self-explanatorily titled, “Everybody Believes in Democracy Until He Gets to the White House.”

In general the piece referenced that fact that before acquiring legislative or executive power, Americans generally have an operational as well as a philosophical appreciation for the constraints that our system of government and beliefs in freedom of speech and freedom of the press put on us, but sometimes when said individuals acquire power, they lose that appreciation for democratic constraint.

A good example of a non-presidential but powerful citizen who abjures the humility of democratic restraint is Jay Rockefeller, Senator from West Virginia. A senator who characteristically lacks insight and the ability or willingness to offer measured observations, Sen. Rockefeller irrelevantly at a hearing on television retransmission consent offered the following blueprint for censorship of the cable news media: “I hunger for quality news. I’m tired of the right and the left…[t]here’s a little bug inside of me which wants to get the FCC to say to Fox and to MSNBC: ‘Out. Off. End. Goodbye.’ It would be a big favor to political discourse.”

He personalized the issue, as all of those with autocratic rather than democratic reflexes tend to do, bemoaning the fact that he “hunger[s] for quality news,” by which he presumably means the left-of-center network shows historically of, say, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings.

(Sen. Rockefeller fortunately or unfortunately didn’t have his facts straight: the FCC is not charged with overseeing cable news, only broadcast news, because the former isn’t broadcast through the public airwaves.)

Sen. Rockefeller ominously yearned for channels that have respect for what “we really want to watch.” It was Democrats who castigated then-Vice President Spiro Agnew for famously criticizing the left-bias of network news, but he made no material threats.

Sen. Rockefeller’s remarks will likely lead to no concrete governmental action, perhaps due to the diluting of Democratic antidemocratic power in Washington.

Liberal news bias is prevalent (yes, we know that there are a few newspapers which trend right and that Fox News trends right), insidious and typified by the credo, “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Au contraire: the job of electronic and print editors and reporters and commentators in general is to report and interpret the news, not conform it to what progressive politicians’ predilections regarding news may be.

Regardless, the marketplace and other modes of competition, or at least not the government, should and will correct overall excesses in presentations of the news.

The arrogance of power-seekers to try to bully news operations out of existence is to be expected in totalitarian regimes, not in American democracy.

–Professor Vatz teaches Media Criticism at Towson University

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