Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey stepped into presidential politics last week after a visit to the White House, and we didn’t like what we saw.
Bailey was in Washington with other sheriffs from across the country to discuss border security and immigration reform. He was with President Donald Trump when reporters asked the president for a comment about a just-released anonymous New York Times op-ed written by a senior administration official. The op-ed was critical of Trump.
The president, speaking to the sheriffs, used the opportunity to bash the Times specifically (“the failing New York Times”) and the media in general (“it’s really a disgrace”). In a phone interview with The Herald-Palladium later that day, Bailey said he supported the president’s media attacks. Bailey was quick to point out he has no problems with local media in Southwest Michigan (thanks, Sheriff), but he has a problem with national media.
We get the distinction. Local media focuses most of its attention on local issues and community events that usually have nothing to do with partisan politics. National media focuses much of its attention on the political circus in Washington, D.C., where escape from partisanship is nearly impossible. So judging them differently makes sense.
But treating any media as the enemy (something Trump has done repeatedly, and something, by implication, Bailey endorsed), is dangerous and wrong. That doesn’t mean the media should be immune from criticism. Far from it. But if the expectation from critics is that the media should be fair and balanced (certainly a proper demand), then the criticism itself needs to be fair and balanced. Sweeping claims of “fake news” every time a media report is deemed unfavorable to Trump is both petty and intellectually dishonest. It may play well to the president’s most ardent supporters, but it does little to advance the national discussion about important policy issues.
One of our great disappointments about national politics is the growing trend by both Republicans and Democrats to see each other as an unredeemable enemy, rather than as fellow Americans whose positions deserve to be heard. Although we suspect most of the elected officials themselves don’t really see the other side of the aisle as the enemy and mostly have friendly relationships with each other in private, the pressure from their base of donors and voters is driving more and more of them to demonize their opponents in public. That feeds the monster of destructive politics and deepens the political divide across the country.
And it affects how people filter the media. If your starting point is that the other side is evil, then any media report that gives the other side credibility will seem like “fake news.” People who respond that way rob themselves of an opportunity to learn and grow – not necessarily to change their positions, but to better understand the nuances of complex issues and recognize the humanness of people who disagree with them.
The alternative to getting information from the media is to trust the politicians and partisan interest groups to give it to you straight. We hope Americans will recognize that as a leap of faith they’re not willing to take.