BY MICHAEL STEELE, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR
Over 200 years ago, our nation’s Founding Fathers sat down and laid out what would become the most important document in American history. The United States Constitution was the foundation for the greatest nation in the world. At the top of that constitution, one of the most fundamental rights of our country was born — the First Amendment, which gifted the American people with the rights to, among other things, freedom of speech and of the press.
While we often take it for granted, this right is not guaranteed in other countries around the world. It is a right that should be cherished and preserved. However, right now, in a society plagued by “cancel culture” and hyper partisanship, we are slowly watching that freedom be threatened.
While American presidents have always had a prickly relationship with the press, former President Trump changed the way society viewed the media and, in turn, the media became a distrustful entity to many citizens. Almost daily, our 45th president berated members of the press, repeatedly assailing them for asking “nasty questions” or peddling “fake news” or, most infamously, claiming they are “the enemy of the people.”
In a time of great uncertainty and turmoil, when Americans should trust the news most, many have turned against it. In fact, Axios recently reported that 56 percent of Americans agree with the statement that “journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.” Let me repeat that: More than half of Americans do not trust our country’s press, an institution which has served as a bridge between our nation’s government and its citizens.
As a direct result of this distrust, we are seeing infighting among the media and the American people, including calls for the removal of specific news stations from the airwaves. Just a few weeks ago, CNN analyst Oliver Darcy called for TV providers to drop conservative news channels. Outlets like Media Matters exist to expose the “propaganda” and “relentless lying” of outlets like Fox News. And it’s not just happening against the political right — we have seen it play out against left-leaning networks, with Trump often referring to anchors at CNN by crude names or lobbing personal smears against MSNBC hosts.
Such disparagement of news anchors and networks is not productive and shutting down news providers will not result in our nation coming together. It will, in fact, do the exact opposite.
Whether it is the right or the left that succeeds in silencing the other side, how will the losing half of the country react to their preferred network being shut off? They certainly won’t react in a manner that is conducive to healing the country. Whatever side you are on, we should all agree that silencing half the country will not get you better news stories and it certainly won’t accomplish our hope of unity and bipartisanship but, rather, will only serve to perpetuate our nation’s divide.
We’ve seen already how this plays out with coverage of the pandemic. When news and information are politicized, people die. How, then, do the American people inform themselves and protect themselves if they do not trust what they are being told?
It is true, mistakes have been made in the coverage of this pandemic — and yes, much of our news comes filtered for our comfort through our preferred partisan lens. Before COVID-19, this was something we all lamented but grew comfortable with, nonetheless. Now, we realize how that negative echo chamber has blurred the lines between what is opinion, fact and actual reporting to the point that the credibility of the Fourth Estate is repeatedly and unjustifiably undermined by politicians and even by some partisan members of the media itself. It must stop.
Moreover, we must not forget the freedom we enjoy in our ability to get the news from whatever source we choose. But we also must be mindful of the consequences when we and those sources engage in spreading misinformation as well.
No doubt, restored trust in our media institutions is an essential part of the healing and unity the Biden administration seeks. Both President Biden and Vice President Harris have echoed the call for a united nation, with Harris noting that it is time “to do what is hard, to do what is good, to unite, to believe in ourselves, believe in our country, believe in what we can do together.”
Trump did not make our transition towards unity any easier — but we know it can and must be achieved. We also know it won’t happen if we and our media continue the trend of “canceling” each other and silencing the expressions of free people.
America is a beautiful tapestry of voices containing all perspectives, opinions and ideas. While we must continue to hold each other accountable for our actions and our words, we also must come together and make certain that the voice of every American can be heard through a free press.
Michael Steele is the former Republican National Committee chairman and former lieutenant governor of Maryland. He is also an MSNBC political analyst.