In many ways, the mainstream media and the upper echelons of the Washington political establishment share something of a symbiotic relationship. Without their contacts at the Capitol and the White House, for example, major news organizations such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, Fox News, and The Wall Street Journal would lack insight into the day-to-day workings of American political power.
In order to get their agenda across in Washington, conversely, politicians in Washington need big news media organizations to publicize their talking points and policy concerns on a national level. For a political candidate to launch his or her career in earnest, moreover, they will likely need some measure of attention from mainstream news outlets.
In many respects, President Donald Trump understood more than most the power of publicity inherent to the American media system when he first began running for public office in 2015. Without the constant attention of media outlets, in fact, President Trump may not have been able to run such a successful campaign the next year.
But Trump is not alone in his reliance on publicity: Clearly, mainstream politicians such as Barack Obama are adept at engaging with the media when necessary. Before any big policy proposal hits Washington, for example, most Sunday news shows will be jam-packed with political spokespeople eager to tell their side of the story.
But not everyone is happy with this sometimes too-cozy arrangement. Himself no stranger to the parallel relationship between Washington’s political class and the major news outlets, Fox News editorialist and former judge Andrew Napolitano has frequently commented on the stalwart connection between news organizations and political heavyweights in Washington.
A stern constitutionalist, he is frequently concerned about the rights enshrined by the Founding Fathers to ensure free speech among American citizens. To this end, he has sometimes voiced concern about the power of big news outlets to silence non-mainstream political operatives.
By his standards, we must also weigh this political ecosystem of intrigue and information aggregating against the recent rise of social media platforms such as Twitter. In Washington and elsewhere, media outlets often pick up on Twitter pronouncements made by leading politicians; these “tweets” often become headline news.
Without Twitter, for example, President Trump would arguably not have been able to secure his political base in the run-up to the 2016 election. But the question arises: When private citizens become leaders of the nation, what kind of speech becomes protected by default? Should Twitter be treated as a public utility or a private company? Does Twitter have the right to censor speech that occurs from users who hold high-level political office?
Andrew Napolitano appears to think that the answer is more complicated than we might imagine. Because the social media service is a private company rather than a government agency, for example, he has suggested that the First Amendment does not necessarily apply to Twitter.
As more and more news organizations shift to online-only formats, it will only be a matter of time before these issues become a widespread concern. For now, however, it is clear that the close relationship between the mainstream media and Washington won’t let up anytime soon.