You’ve likely heard of Trump’s tweet about Saturday Night Live’s political parody of It’s a Wonderful Life. Of course SNL went anti-Trump with it, which is about as noteworthy as a dog urinating on a hubcap. I don’t usually pay attention to Trump tweets because I suspect he uses them both to misdirect attention and yank the chains of perennially outraged liberals. This one, though, caught my attention:
A REAL scandal is the one sided coverage, hour by hour, of networks like NBC & Democrat spin machines like Saturday Night Live. It’s all nothing less than unfair coverage and Dem commercials. Should be tested in courts, can’t be legal? Only defame and belittle! Collusion?
To which I thought “Of course it’s unfair and the propaganda arm of the Democrat party. That’s the networks have been for a long time.” Just as was biased even in the old days when Saturday Night Live was actually funny, even before television, even before radio.
Presidents have reacted to the bias in different ways. When the networks refused to carry Ronald Reagan’s national addresses, he opened a press conference with a speech. Jimmy Carter once said to the White House Correspondents Association “Tonight in my show of goodwill, I’m going to give you such an inside story – off the record, of course, so you can put away your crayons.”
Then we have the president who wrote:
“Advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper.”
The same president penned this:
“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than a man who reads nothing but newspapers.”
And he should know: not only was he attacked by the press, but he had his own attack machine to go after a political opponent. Thomas Jefferson really didn’t like newspapers.
Yep. Thomas Jefferson. Author of the Declaration of Independence, the third President of the United States. And the more you look at history, the more you find that the press was biased even before the American Revolution. Compare the famous broadside of the Boston Massacre by Paul Revere with the sketch he did at the trial of the British soldiers, and you’ll see what was reported was often afar cry from what actually happened.
And yet, Jefferson, who once said he neither took a newspaper nor read one and was happier for it, also said this:
“…were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Remember, this is the same man who knew newspapers were biased from the get-go, and exploited that bias when he went against John Adams (and was latter bitten by them when James Callendar, the man he hired to do the deed, turned his talents against him). He saw a free media, as biased as it was, as a necessity, and much more preferable than one controlled by the government.
Of course, the media in his day was known to be biased. One of the first things someone did if they wanted to influence public opinion was to set up a newspaper. Failing that, they’d try to influence the news it printed through techniques such as Jefferson used with his attack machine. When you look at history, the amazing thing isn’t that media is biased, but that we ever came to think that it isn’t.
So yes, our media is biased. It’s become more so in resent years, perhaps in desperation at losing influence. I’m not surprised Saturday Night Live would be biased. Should that be against the law? No. That’s why such a law would be unconstitutional. I’m not even sure if election laws against bias are really constitutional. Those laws are most likely what Trump was thinking about in his tweet. And he’s right that the networks are pretty much non-stop Democrat propaganda. But illegal? No, not even by federal election laws. For one thing, we don’t have a federal election going on right now. For another, it’s the issue of freedom of speech, protected in the 1stAmendment of the US Constitution.
This Jefferson knew, though when he made his statement on preferring newspapers with no government to government with no newspapers, the states had yet to hold what would become the Constitutional Convention. Though he saw advertisements as the only reliable truth in newspapers, he saw that preferable to a government that exercise control over what the people could learn.
This, ultimately, is what this is about. The liberty to put on a skit critical of the President of the United States is far more important than what the skit might say. Just as we all have the liberty not to watch it. The ironic thing is that if Trump hadn’t tweeted about it, it wouldn’t have attracted any attention at all. The only ones who would know about it are those who watched it, and I doubt they thought any differently before they watched it — they’re probably the only ones who still think Saturday Night Live is funny.
As Jefferson pointed out in the debate over a Federal bank, if Congress had the power to do whatever it deemed good for the United States, it would also have the power to do whatever was bad, as Congress would be the sole judge of what was good or bad. The demand of an unbiased media raises the question of who decides what is bias. As we’ve seen in private venues such as Facebook, that doesn’t work too well. The end result of such laws, even if they were constitutional, would be more bias, not less, depending on who controlled the government.
“Should be tested in courts, can’t be legal?” No. it shouldn’t be tested in courts. Yes, it’s legal, just as it should be, if we still value liberty. To do away with freedom of the press, even a press as biased as what we have in the United States today, is to set us on a course of less liberty, not more. It might not be a newspaper advertisement, but that’s a truth you can rely on, too.
I think Jefferson would agree.