Now that Democrats and Republicans have wrapped up their nominating conventions, it’s a good time to look at how the media fits into their visions for the future.
This is a precarious time for the local free press. Newspapers across the country are closing or being gobbled up by hedge funds. They are victims of long-term industry trends and pandemic-induced economic calamity.
Some elected officials are trying to help. One bipartisan bill in Congress would provide a lifeline to local news organizations. But much more needs to be done, and party platforms provide insights into which candidates might do it.
The platforms are aspirational statements of mainstream party values that usually are updated every four years at the conventions. They do not express the views of every member of the party. Parties are not monolithic. Often there is considerable debate within the party over specifics. The Democratic platform, for example, supports reproductive rights including access to abortion, but some Democrats are anti-abortion.
For the public, platforms are a cheat sheet for where Democrats and Republicans stand writ large.
Based on this year’s platforms (or closest approximation) Democrats and Republicans are as far apart on the free press as they are on most issues.
The 2020 Democratic Party Platform includes a section with the heading “Supporting Press Freedom.” At merely 122 words, it’s not a long section with detailed policy proposals. Rather it’s just vague statements about how much they love the free press and a hyperbolic attack on President Donald Trump. At least Democrats are saying some of the right things.
“The free press is essential to our free democracy.” Check.
“Democrats are concerned about the potentially harmful effects of corporate consolidation in the media industry.” The hedging adverb “potentially” aside, check.
Democrats would “reinstate and strengthen media ownership rules and direct federal antitrust agencies to investigate impacts of mergers in the media industry.” Check … I guess.
More investigations! Stronger rules! Even under the most optimistic analysis, those moves wouldn’t help remaining independent newspapers nor undo the harm that already has occurred. Plus, it’s not as if media consolidations slowed the last time Democrats controlled the White House and Congress.
Even if that’s all a bit tepid, it’s something. The party’s 2016 platform mentioned the free press only in passing as part of a laundry list of things that Democrats saw as important to a civil society, things like religious freedom, honest police forces and strong legislatures.
Republicans, meanwhile, didn’t actually adopt a new platform this year. The party will coast on its 2016 platform and whatever the president says.
The GOP’s 2016 platform barely mentioned the free press. Where it did, it denigrated the media. The media is guilty of “intimidation” against state leaders who are “defending religious liberty.” The platform also calls out “[Obama’s] media admirers” who misconstrued his personal decisions on a range of issues as done deals.
The Republican party’s official take on the press hasn’t improved since then. The president has sought to undermine public trust in the press and brand objective reporting as “fake news.”
At the GOP convention last week, media hostility was a prominent theme. Tiffany Trump, the president’s daughter, warned, “People must recognize that our thoughts, our opinions, and even the choice of who we are voting for may and are being manipulated and invisibly coerced by the media and tech giants. If you tune into the media, you get one biased opinion or another.”
Other Republican convention speakers also had vitriol for the media. The only one among them with a good excuse was Nick Sandmann, the former Covington Catholic High School student whose 2018 interaction with a Native American protester on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial went viral. So far, he’s scored two settlements from major media organizations — CNN and The Washington Post — whose coverage painted him as the aggressor when the opposite turned out to true.
The scornful, pessimistic view of the press isn’t universal among Republican candidates, but it is the official party line. It’s hard to imagine that the party of Trump would go out of its way to help save the local free press. Some individual Republicans do support the press. Washington Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse is one of the main sponsors of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. It just won’t be a priority for the whole party as long as the 2016 platform and Trump set the agenda.
If you don’t work for a newspaper, saving the free press shouldn’t be a litmus test on Election Day. It should, however, be one more thing to consider when deciding how to vote. If you believe, as the nation’s founders did, that a local free press is essential for democracy and civic discourse, ask candidates where they stand on their party’s platforms and the press. Then make an informed decision.