I happened to stumble across the White House Correspondents Dinner on television Saturday night while channel surfing. Without the president in attendance, it was a bizarre, surreal affair that made absolutely no sense whatsoever. It was like the Nuremburg Courts trying someone in absentia for war crimes. I think Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld described it best by calling it “a birthday party without the guest of honor and presents.” I wasn’t surprised at all by the lampooning of the president and his administration by members of the Fourth Estate and Hollywood royalty—it was, after all supposed to be a roast. I was, however, surprised at the level of vitriol on display. It was as if the event itself somehow had removed the thin layer of varnish that provides the illusion of journalistic integrity. What you saw was the beast exposed for what it is, a seething, petty, mean-spirited partisan group who has abandoned the ethics of its profession to advance one political agenda while derailing another. Truth, fairness, objectivity, journalistic integrity be damned. The president is the enemy and the end justifies the means.
How did this happen? Journalism used to be a noble profession. The Society of Professional Journalists clearly articulates this:
And in case you want to know what integrity is supposed to mean to journalists, see the SPJ’s code of ethics.
I’m not saying all journalists are unethical. I did see a glimmer of hope in the audience when some of the more caustic remarks were met with groans or at least with no reaction. But it has become far more popular to jump on the “bash the other side” bandwagon. Left-leaning journalists certainly have no monopoly on biased reporting as the right has their gladiators and cheerleaders as well. All you have to do is watch Fox News for 15 minutes and that comes through. It is amazing how news organizations that skew toward the political polar opposites cover the same event. While driving, I’ll often switch back and forth between CNN and Fox News. The difference in how they cover a common story is striking. It as if they are talking about two completely different events. After a few minutes of listening to this I usually switch over to BBC for a palate cleanser.
While the abysmal state of journalism in America may be disheartening, it is nowhere nearly as serious a threat to democracy as the attack on freedom of expression. There’s a reason freedom of expression is in the First Amendment. Those 45 words guarantee protection from some of the more egregious acts perpetrated against the 13 Colonies by the British Crown. State control of religion, prohibitions against protest and assembly, no way to hold the government accountable – these are all hallmarks of despotism. But the most serious threat to liberty and democracy is the silencing of expression.
Freedom of speech and of the press are the Holy Grail of liberty and must be protected at all cost. If they go, everything goes. They are nonnegotiable. Those who try and shut down free speech should be viewed as anarchists and domestic terrorists intent on depriving citizens of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Organizations and institutions that encourage this behavior or allow it to happen are accomplices. Shame on you U.C. Berkeley. Whether you’re a racist, a fascist, a communist or an environmentalist – you get to be heard, no matter how much people don’t like what you have to say. It’s the noise of democracy.