The media — and as a result, America — has a problem distinguishing old from new.
I'm not talking about incessant Hollywood reboots of old movies and TV shows. I'm talking about the tendency to portray the most recent expression of an established policy or law as a new development — something that confirms our fears about a new president, a new social trend, a new era.
I wrote about this trend almost a decade ago in the context of the Patriot Act. The press — and obliging Americans — repeatedly portrayed routine criminal justice procedures as examples of encroaching tyranny under the Patriot Act. For instance, the press spun a banal interference-with-a-flight-crew case into a story about Patriot Act excesses, even though the Patriot Act's minor changes to the relevant statute were utterly irrelevant to the story and the case. In another case, the internet worked itself into a frenzy over a fairly straightforward interstate threats case, spinning tales of black sites and press blackouts and deprivations of due process despite the mundane and typical nature of the proceedings. We were afraid (reasonably) about the Patriot Act and so saw its influence in everything, even in things that had been happening for a long time.
The urge to indulge in this habit under the thoroughly loathsome Trump Administration is overpowering. Trump and his underlings are scornful of rights and openly fantasize about abusing them. They require dedicated scrutiny. But not every ugly thing that happens now is the result of a Trumpism. Take, for instance, the concern about members of the press being arrested at anti-Trump protests. We should absolutely be vigilant for signs of the criminal justice system being abused to suppress the press and dissent. But cops have always indiscriminately arrested people at protests — including journalists — and falsified masses of improbable riot or assault or obstruction charges afterwards. Reporters have been charged plenty of times before. Sometimes it's a reflection of law enforcement's indiscriminate approach to arrests at protests and sometimes it's a reflection of entrenched law enforcement hostility to press scrutiny. Is the latest incident actually a change — or is the press just noticing because this time they got caught up in it, and they are primed to expect tyranny?
Examples are legion, and not just in the criminal justice arena. Every day you'll see old policies being cited as new Trump atrocities. Before it happened to Obama, and Bush, and so on ad infinitum.
It's a good thing to question wrongdoing and bad policies anew. But misrepresenting them as new is foolish. First, it gives political cover to Trump by framing good criticisms in a misleading and easily rebuttable way, discrediting the substance of the criticism. Second, it gives cover to the bad policies. Law enforcement excesses are not new and will not be solved or cured just by resisting Trump's gloss on them. Police have been acting badly and targeting press at protests for as long as there have been police and protests. If we portray the problem as one about Trump, we accept the false and unhelpful frame that the problem will go away with the next president, or that problems can be solved merely by resistance to Trump. Not so. The legal system's injustices will always be broader than one leader and require consistent criticism and vigilance, not just opposition to any one bad leader.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- No, The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Shouldn't Sue Over "Fake News" - February 20th, 2017
- Lawsplainer: The Eleventh Circuit Protects Doctors' Right To Ask About Guns - February 17th, 2017
- Eleventh Circuit Revisits Florida Law Banning Doctors From Asking About Guns, And I Can't Even - February 16th, 2017
- Erdoğan and the European View of Free Speech - February 10th, 2017
- Still Annoying After All These Years: A Petty Government Story - February 9th, 2017