Politics and the Media
By Brigid Mullen
There’s a reason that the First Amendment of the Constitution defends freedom of the press. The media is responsible for getting accurate information out to people across the nation, and it has always been of utmost importance for America to keep news outlets fair, unbiased, and honest, especially when reporting on politics. Samson Sackett, a History teacher here at La Follette, poses the question, “This idea that the press is independent, and its job is to help make sure our political leadership is being honest, without the press doing that, where would we be?”
Throughout history, news outlets have often been responsible for exposing scandals and corruption within the government. For example, in the early 1900s, as capitalism and the industrial revolution swept through the country, journalists were the ones to take a stand and expose corrupt business practices. These journalists came to be known as “muckrakers,” as they “raked the muck” out of society and demanded the government hold businesses to tighter regulations for the protection of both the worker and consumer. Muckraking journalists of the past include Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and Jacob Riis.
Due to this habit of exposing malpractice on a higher, professional level, politicians have also often had strenuous relationships with the press. In politics, people often want to limit public knowledge on certain sensitive topics, whether to ‘protect’ the public or just to save face. If certain information about them gets out to the press and is then relayed to the public, it would greatly harm their reputation and people would lose trust in them. One prime example of this is the Pentagon Papers of 1971, when news outlets leaked government information about the Vietnam War that had previously been withheld from the public. “When the Pentagon Papers ended up getting leaked to the press, the press was able to point out that we were at war for the wrong purposes, and that created a big scandal about the Vietnam War and built up more distrust of the government,” Mr. Sackett said. The Pentagon Papers, and the press surrounding them, widened the political credibility gap of the time -- what politicians were saying versus what they were actually doing, and how people lost faith in them because of it.
The American government also has had a thorough history of censoring the media, or using it to relay propaganda or dramaticized misinformation. This can be seen especially during World War I, as the American government expanded to form departments like the Committee on Public Information, which were dedicated to regulating media regarding information about the war. During the war, the government took control of all the information told to the general public regarding what was going on in the war. This was taken a step further with the Sedition Act of 1918, which made it illegal to publish anti-American or anti-war ideas, anything the government deemed to be “unconstitutional”.
Remembering these key events in political history is still so important today. As Mr. Sackett put it, we have a president who “is actually at times sort of at war with the press -- sometimes the president will refer to specific news organizations as being corrupt or failing, or the ‘dishonest press,’ and whenever a political leader does that, it undermines the people’s faith in the credibility of the press and leads us more towards an authoritarian regime.” Politicians making baseless accusations of certain media outlets as inaccurate is dangerous, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to not believe accusations like this without doing any actual research for themselves as to whether they’re true or not. If people blindly trust every politician that’s hostile towards the press, they give up their own political agency, and the country as a whole takes a few steps away from democracy. “When we start to shackle the press, when we start to undermine press freedom, then we’re really starting to slide down this slippery slope,” Mr. Sackett continued. This is especially important for us to remember now, as it’s an election year, and many La Follette students will soon be able to vote.
Although journalism looks very different today than it did even twenty years ago-- with many getting our information about politics from Twitter or news websites rather than actually having a newspaper delivered to our houses -- it still holds great importance. “I think even today is also an important time in the history of political journalism, whether it’s online news organizations, or the traditional print media like the New York Times, Time Magazine, or the Wall Street Journal. They’re still exposing issues that are going on in our government and society, and I think that that’s still important today,” Mr. Sackett concluded. So, as you read the countless political headlines that will undoubtedly emerge in the next six months or so, keep in mind the history that the press holds with politics, and how important it is to do your own research regarding political issues.