The “Liberal Media” and the Sanctity of Speech

Donald Trump—and many other demagogues across the world, from the US to the UK—have increasingly deflected rightful criticism by appealing to the notion of liberal media bias. According to their argument, the media—primarily owned, operated, and produced by liberals—has all the incentive to demonize conservative voices and support leftist voices, leading to the delegitimization of those on the right. In one sense, they have a point: liberal bias in media has been proven several times by multiple scholars of the media. But this fact misses the point. Chris Matthews at Fortune makes the argument that this is because journalists themselves are inherently liberal.  

My discussion here is not about liberal bias. Rather, it is about the typical response from these politicians. Time and time again, they dismiss any critique of themselves as being the product of the liberal media, and therefore anti-conservative, anti-truth, and deliberately misleading. Instead of providing facts and evidence to rebut the critiques, the response is merely to demean the media. In my view, this tactic serves only to further cement the demagoguery of rogue politicians.

Primarily, my concern lies in that to dismiss is to ignore completely; in other words, when one discredits the speech of a journalist (or even a regular person) due to their views, the overarching right to free speech is disregarded. Free speech is best understood as the oft-quoted marketplace of ideas: in other words, being able to say what one thinks is inherently bound up with the responsibility to produce productive discourse.

In this view, ideas, as products of human minds, are all effectively equal on the field of debate. Yes, some ideas are factually wrong; but this does not mean that their value is any less. Dismissing confrontation as wrong without approaching its merits creates a hierarchy of ideas, which more generally allows for the suppression of the exchange of ideas, in addition to promoting the homogenization of political views. In turn, this achieves exactly what these demagogues argue that the liberal media achieves: the polarization of political views and the dissatisfaction with present political parties. Lastly, such a hierarchy causes some ideas to have less worth than others, upending the framework of productive discourse. Political debate becomes meaningless without a positive goal.

My second concern is that this tactic allows politicians to dictate what is “liberal media” and what is not. If we accept that liberal media criticism should be ignored, we are running the risk of letting politicians decide what is permissible debate and what is not. The same critique rendered by, for example, Breitbart in one instance and CNN in another could and would be treated differently by said politician. Suddenly, the politician usurps the right to delegitimize any disagreement. In some sense, we see the rise of a totalitarian response to debate, rather than a democratic one: it has always been a staple of totalitarian regimes to censure debate rather than support it.

The last concern I hold is the impact of this tactic on constituents. Dismissing critique is a strategy employed by those who refuse to be held accountable. It is easy to ignore debate; yet, debate and disagreement are the chief ways to ensure that those we elect do what we elect them to do. If, for instance, MSNBC—a liberal news organization—discovers that Candidate A might have bribed other officials and runs a story about it, the public gains. If such a candidate disregards this finding as “liberal media bias”, accountability becomes secondary. The politician does not respond to the people; they become accountable only to themselves.

In the end, everyone and everything is biased. What matters is not that this is true; rather, our response to bias can either promote or damage free discussion. Donald Trump, his proteges, and the many other demagogues around the world all choose the latter when they ignore criticism on the basis of its origin.

—JP Zenger

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