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A New York Times article posted this past weekend strongly reinforces a suspicion that I’ve held for some time about the title of most worrisome – because largely neglected – existing threat to American democracy. It’s not demagogues who get elected to high (or even the highest) public office. It’s not white supremacists or Antifa. It’s not voter fraud or voter suppression. It’s not Russian leader Vladimir Putin. It’s not even the kind of disinformation and misinformation and even election interference that he and other foreign dictators (like China’s Xi Jinping) have engaged in.

Instead it’s our own Mainstream Media – including the gargantuan social media platforms that have come to play such a huge role in determining what news Americans see, watch, and hear.

Why are these news organizations so dangerous? For two main reasons. First, their democracy-subverting activities are much more subtle and therefore harder to identify than those of the above culprits. Second, their ever-growing partisanship and arrogance is destroying what has long been relied on as the nation’s fail-safe mechanism – a watchdog press.

To be fair, this idea has always been problematic, even though throughout U.S. history, prominent Americans have made statements like “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost” (Thomas Jefferson) and “Democracy Dies in Darkness” (the Washington Post).

Yes, despite the bedrock Constitutional system of separation of powers, it’s been essential for some influential force outside government to “guard the guardians.” But embedded in the very consequent need for private ownership (to ensure that the press can independently monitor the government) is the danger that these owners will solely or mainly use their power to further their own particular interests, not society’s.

All of which is to say that we’ve long had a national conundrum to deal with. But it doesn’t seem unreasonable to conclude that, once journalism clearly exited its sensationalistic “Yellow” phase and (probably in the years following Wold War II), started acting like a profession that needed to embody and uphold standards of accuracy and objectivity, the major media met its watchdog responsibilities fairly well – over both government and the private sector.

What the author of the Times piece, former journalist Barry Meier, makes clear, is that there’s not only more reason than ever to fear that the commitment to objectivity is rapidly weakening (and these fears have been amply justified lately, as I’ve reported here). There’s also more reason than ever to fear that the kind of commitment to accountability watchdogs must accept – inevitably entailing an acknowledgement of legitimate outside criticism and the imperative of correcting mistakes – seriously is fading as well.

These worries have been triggered by two specific observations made by Meier about the Mainstream Media’s handling of the charges that former President Trump colluded with Russia to ensure victory in the 2016 election. As Meier recounts, these accusations were supercharged by reports that a former British super-spy had uncovered evidence that Trump’s personal misbehavior had exposed him to Russian blackmail, and resulted in his turning into a latterday Manchurian Candidate who would be forced to do Moscow’s bidding.

The infamous “Steele dossier” that supposedly made this case was published by a website called Buzzfeed.com in January, 2017 – shortly before Trump’s inauguration – and although no serious efforts at confirmation or even finding any supporting evidence were made, “countless articles, television shows, books, tweets and blog posts about it appeared.” (The dossier also formed part of the basis of the FBI’s request to a special U.S. court to spy on the Trump campaign in 2016, and Bureau Director James Comey’s March, 2017 disclosure that this investigation was continuing poured additional fuel on the Trump Russia fire.)

By 2019, Meier goes on, the Steele dossier had been exposed as a bogus hatchet job. But by that time, of course, the collusion firestorm had dominated the Trump presidency, along with equally offbase news coverage of his administration, and surely compromised its ability to govern effectively.

Why this prolonged media focus? In large measure, as Meier explains, because “It was easy for many journalists to believe that Mr. Trump would do anything to win, even — given his stance with…Putin — collude with Russia.” Indeed, as the author observes, they picked up this ball and ran with it even though “Steele said that his information needed to be confirmed….”

This flagrant anti-Trump bias was bad enough. Much worse, though was the media’s response once the dossier had been debunked. In Meier’s words:

[A] few reporters who had written about the dossier had backed away from it. ‘Some people have wanted to maintain that the dossier is checking out when, as far as I can tell, it hasn’t,’ said Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News. He was in the minority. When Erik Wemple of The Washington Post wrote a series of columns about the media infatuation with the dossier, most journalists he contacted either defended their work or ignored his inquiries.”

Even though Meier, Isikoff, and Wemple all work for Mainstream Media organizations themselves, these revelations are more disturbing because they cast doubt on these news organization’s willingness, either individually or collectively, to admit that a major preoccupation of theirs that shaped American politics for years was an utter crock. And in a similar vein, they’re grounds for great skepticism that these same media will produce accurate post-mortems on the actual actions by governments or by individual politicians that conformed with this Get Trump obsession.     

The reason for this reluctance is obvious: Their credibility – their most precious asset, even in this hyperpartisan era – would be devastated. But if these powerful companies won’t self-correct or correct the records of others – and in some systematic, comprehensive way that can make a difference, not in dribs and drabs – especially on a matter of this importance, then their watchdog reputation gets thrown out the window.

And as far as I’m concerned, good riddance. But if the big national media can’t be relied on to play this role responsibly, who or what can? And can a democracy worthy of the name long survive without actors that can credibly set the record straight before the archives are fully open to historians years and even decades from now?

Moreover, we’re getting an example of how such flawed Mainstream Media performance could be a literally fatal flaw – and on mass level.  Specifically,  evidence has appeared throughout the CCP Virus pandemic that sweeping lockdown- and mask-wearing-centric mitigation strategy pursued in most of the country at the behest of the public health establishment was completely and tragically mistaken. (See, e.g., here.)  America’s major national news organizations have obviously bought in to the stay-at-home and mask-up claims, as shown, for example, by their near canonization of leading lockdowns proponent Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the federal government’s head immunologist and now President Biden’s top medical adviser

I’d like to believe that if conclusive evidence emerges invalidating this virus-fighting approach, and supporting measures with potentially greater effectiveness during future pandemics, the news would be trumpeted all over the Mainstream Media even if the federal government tried to hush it up.  But as of now, expressing the hope that the real story might become known looks like nothing so much as practicing quackery.