Shooting The Messenger

A recent report from the Brookings Institution began rather predictably:

A leader who portrays himself as one of the persecuted, the target of an incessant witch-hunt by the so-called deep state. A liberal media intent on revisiting an election gone badly. And a left-wing political machine supposedly out to get him.

The surprise came in the next sentence. “This leader, of course, is Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel.” The article was an investigation into what the author called “the politics of grievance” employed by both Netanyahu and Trump.

According to the article, at a recent rally in Israel,

Netanyahu seemed to channel Donald Trump. He even explicitly (mis)used the English phrase “fake news” to attack the supposedly biased mainstream media that’s out to get him. While Netanyahu and Trump are profoundly different—Bibi’s many faults aside, he is erudite, cautious, and experienced—the two men share an approach to confronting political adversity: divide and conquer, turn the spotlight on the “other,” create an other when none is available, and always, always, feed the base.

The parallels between these two flawed leaders include explicit attacks on so-called “elites,” including –prominently, especially–the press. And that assault is no small matter, because in democratic societies, the press is an essential watchdog, the only institution that mediates between the governed and their government. Imperfect, uneven and beleaguered as it is, the media is our only window into the world of politics and policy.

Autocrats want to break that window.

On “Meet the Press,” John McCain recently underlined the danger of attacks on the press.

“I hate the press. I hate you especially,” McCain told NBC’s Chuck Todd, according to excerpts of the interview set to air Sunday. “But the fact is we need you. We need a free press. We must have it. It’s vital. If you want to preserve – I’m very serious now – if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”

McCain’s comments came in response to a question about Trump’s recent declaration, made via Twitter, that the press is the “enemy of the American People.”

A recent article in Newsweek considered the nature of Trump’s persistent assaults on the press, and considered the potential consequences:

The President’s attacks may be reckless – who knows whether someone in his audience will take the President’s word as license to take action against enemies of the American people ? – but they are not without purpose.

They have concrete aims: to intimidate reporters into certain kinds of coverage, or clarify for his favored outlets what coverage he desires, or plant the seeds of doubt about news stories (such as the Russia investigation led by Robert Mueller).

The article goes on to detail the ways in which Trump’s hostility to investigative journalism is driving policy–efforts to shut down whistleblowers and others who might provide the press with information about government wrongdoing, and attacks on net neutrality:

For instance, the FCC’s proposal to undo network neutrality rules – those rules that implement a policy disfavoring content-discrimination by digital network operators – threatens the long-term viability of independent media, and does most damage to reporters and outlets that lack the audience and resources of existing media powerhouses.

These attacks on the media are reinforced by the proliferating propaganda sites on line, and by the ability to choose the “news” that reinforces one’s preferred worldview. Educators desperately need to teach news literacy, the ability to distinguish between responsible journalism and irresponsible click-bait.

In our political environment characterized by civic ignorance, hyper-partisanship and confirmation bias, how effective are the efforts by would-be autocrats and political partisans to undermine genuine journalism? How effective is persistent propaganda?

Unfortunately, as Vox tells us, a lot more effective than we like to think.


  1. We have a president who is openly and pointedly hostile to specific representatives of the press while upholding those such as Brietbart, again under the control of his BFF, Bannon. Gossip sheets and his irresponsible “Tweets” feeds the press his controversial thoughts and opinions. He openly insults journalists who have spoken against him; such as naming and refusing to accept questions from John at CBS during the Kuwait press conference. Aren’t Trump and Netanyahu both politically supporting one religious faction in their respective countries without naming them? “Actions speak louder than words.”

    John McCain’s outspoken, insulting manner was offensive and unnecessary but his basic message had merit. “…if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. ” What form of news would we be watching and reading if many journalists were not “adversarial press” regarding their reports of our current administration who are openly antagonistic and whose primary interest is admittedly to “deconstruct” our government and democracy. But; is McCain considering the press reporting Trump’s own words and showing news films of his questionable antics and those never ending Tweets as being “adversarial press”? Or is he dumping his long held but never spoken true beliefs due to his recent diagnosis of brain cancer? I am not a big fan of Chuck Todd but, he personally does not deserve McCain’s very public hatred due to being a member of the press. He used (or abused) his freedom of speech “Shooting The Messenger” with his comments. Or was he simply being “adversarial” regarding the press in general?

    “In our political environment characterized by civic ignorance, hyper-partisanship and confirmation bias, how effective are the efforts by would-be autocrats and political partisans to undermine genuine journalism? How effective is persistent propaganda?”

    “adversarial press” or simply speaking the plain truth regarding the current dilemma within the structure of our government?

  2. For any of you who are interested in a better understanding of Netanyahu, I refer you to a new book that has just been released: “The Netanyahu Years” by Ben Caspit, translated by Ora Cummings (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2017).

  3. John McCain knew what he was doing and he did it well. It’s called STANDING UP TO POWER. You can’t do it and be nice. At least not here in the U.S. on September 9th, 2017.

  4. McCain knows a war when he sees it. It helps to have been REALLY in a war and UNDERSTAND its consequences: Whether it be foreign or DOMESTIC. Few would know it better than John McCain.

  5. What many people have skirted for some time is the bigotry present in many members of the European Jewish Community – who subsequently settled in Israel and pretty much have their Rabbinate in power behind the Knesset. This is fact – one can see how they treated the people who carry a true Torah text – the Yemeni… they tested their blood in a study for sickle-cell to make sure they weren’t BLACK. The Yemeni have been Jewish before the Askenazi ! And Netanyahu is just such a bigot – one who addresses Blacks as ‘Schwartze’s’… But people do not talk bad about him who are not Jewish for fear of being labeled Anti-Semite!… NO no anti-semite about it! Then man is a fascist in the ilk of Donald Trump! and there are a lot of people like him Jewish and not! He is a BIGOT he is a fascist he is an old school European Bigot Jew! (.) that whole thing with the Falasha’s – they employed them in the lowest paying jobs and labor – street cleaning, garbage collection, and they were kept ‘separate’… no bigotry in Israel – oh Jews are exempt from being bigots… ? No I don’t know a people extant that do not exhibit some form of bigotry – Just try reading the Ancient Hebrew Sages for any amount of volumes… ! Try sucking that down! wow… they can say it is because they are the chosen – no it is because they are a stiff-necked and stubborn people ( – and and some are very bigoted) – as their G-d called them!… Face it they are HUMAN like you and me – they have faults. And right now it seems Faulty people are on the rise – all over the place! Netanyahu is gods answer to Israel as Trump is to us… ! Somewhere we BOTH screwed up really GOOOD!

  6. Let’s hear it for Sinclair Broadcasting. More likely than Fox to benefit from the current environment.

  7. Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels did the same exact thing 85 years ago in Germany. It’s one of the big reasons that they and the “Brown Shirts” came to power. We should never forget this bit of history regarding the use of this tactic.

  8. Marv – Welcome to the group. My house on the lake in Naples is directly under the projected path of Irma. I am considering Belize or Costa Rica as alternatives to residence in my usual wintertime abode for the upcoming season.
    Blaming the messenger is an old trick. Execute the ambassadors. Kill the lawyers, but leave the bad guys free to continue their feats of trickery and deception. I have never been a Bibi lover, nor have I believed that Israel is (as we are constantly reminded) our only democratic ally in the Near East. I think we have none. I don’t like the way Bibi (or Trump) practice democratic values, always under the cover of existentialism (as though all such national initiatives are not ultimately existential). Keeping the pot boiling in order to take political advantage of the resulting chaos is not my idea of diplomacy, though I vividly recall my old World Politics professor who opined that (and this was before Thatcher, Merkel et al.} that “A diplomat is an honest man, sent abroad to lie for his country.” We must therefore kill the diplomats but keep those who sent them in power since we need countervailing enemies to justify retention of power back home via propaganda, fear mongering etc. Works out.

  9. Manuel,

    Just one more thing. I’m not taking issue with you but I would like to say, even though I’m from a mixed background, I’ll have to admit my Jewish part has made me in the “long run” very STUBBORN. I’m not ANTI-SURVIVAL.

  10. Thanks for the important article, Sheila!

    I wholeheartedly agree that teachers need to teach news literacy (as well as a dozen or so eliminated skills). That said, parents, if they know how, should do the same. Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and community centers, the same. We individuals, who can discern pretty well, need to teach our newspapers, newsmagazines,families, friends, colleagues and co-workers, if they will let us.

    Does anyone know if there is a news literacy blog? I, too, need to sharpen my skills.

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