Why The Press Will Never Be Free

“Once the institutions of democracy had been dismantled, it was impossible—it was too late—to organize and defend them.”Masha Gessen

One day, when you and I are nothing more than an historical footnote, Donald Trump’s Tweets will be a rich primary source for future academic study. Like George Washington’s letters, they’ll provide a window into the mind of who will by then (hopefully) be the oddest man to have ever occupied the White House. What will be missing from that historical record, though, will be something only we have the power to understand in this present moment—the remarkable speed at which those Tweets transformed from ominous threats into stale, defanged jokes.

I still remember the intense panic sparked by last November’s infamous “flag burning tweet.” But just five months later, as the Donald recycles his “greatest hits,” it’s hard not to feel sorry for him and how far he’s fallen in the public eye.

Where once the president-elect seemed a capable authoritarian-in-waiting, he has revealed himself to be nothing more than a bumbling stooge, always tripping over his own two feet. His two Muslim bans have been held up in court. His healthcare dreams: deflated. His approval rating: bottoming out. And his party: stumbling through civil war. In this swirling tempest of incompetence, liberal democracy is ascendant. The system is functioning.

There’s no guarantee this trend will continue upward, but there certainly are excuses for optimism.

In part, I credit our current state to the Women’s March, just 72 days ago (feels like years, doesn’t it?). Trump hadn’t spent 24 hours in the white house before three million progressives took to the streets to warn the administration that they would not stand by and watch the Constitution burn. That spirit, once ignited, has not quieted.

It has turned Trump’s Twitter account from threatening bully pulpit to amateur open mic.

woman's march
It is important to remember, though, that just 73 days have passed. The 2018 midterms are over a year away. And to truly enact change in the democratic system requires not just individual commitment to the cause, but more importantly, collective action.

In electoral politics, there is little a single person can do. Change happens on a larger scale—millions of people acting in concert.

But that fact is at odds with the American ethos. We elevate the cult of the individual and fetishize the Great Man theory of history. We’ve been taught to believe that individuals bring about great change on their own. We celebrate one man’s (or woman’s) achievements.

When the individual is as powerful as Stalin or Steve Jobs, that may be true. But for the powerless, their strength lies in their numbers. We’ve seen this basic fact proven many times over, just in the last three months. Progressives made the calls that thwarted health care reform, the South Koreans took to the street to oust their corrupted president, and this past week, Venezuelans pressured their government to walk back an authoritarian power grab.

It’s something that American citizens are learning while the press struggles to keep pace.

At this point, even some of Trump’s most ardent supporters have soured on his favorite fake news punching bags. But these attacks are still a cause for concern. A free and fair press is essential to any functioning democracy. Without it, we cannot hold our leaders to account. In fact, absent a free press, we may not even know what our leaders or country are up to.

Like the People, the Press’ institutional security also relies on collective action. They can beat back these attacks by standing together, asserting their strength in numbers, and pushing for their common goal: their freedom. Without that, no journalist is safe. Even those who currently find themselves on the administration’s good side can find themselves in trouble if they step out of line (or if the rules of the game are secretly changed). But the press suffers from a collective action problem.

The People share the common goals of freedom and upholding the democratic system. The Press shares those same goals, but each individual organization also has a more selfish goal—that of breaking news so they can make money for their outlet. These two overarching objectives stand at odds. Although the Press as a whole loses if the New York Times is silenced, the Washington Post and Brietbart both stand to gain as they increase distribution and their control of information.

Those familiar with game theory will immediately recognize a prisoner’s dilemma. In this scenario, two prisoners are apprehended, isolated, and questioned. If both prisoners refuse to answer questions about their crime, they’ll be jailed for one year on minor, unrelated charges. However, the interrogator offers each the same deal (unbeknownst to one another): if he rats out his partner, he’ll be granted immunity and his partner will end up in jail for three years on serious charges. Now, both prisoners are incentivized betray the other. And if that happens, they both end up in jail for two years on those harsher charges.

prisoner's dilemma

Although the best collective strategy is to keep quiet, doing so is individually risky, and may lead to the worst outcome for the individual. In the end, each prisoner’s best move is to act against his own best interest.

The Press suffers from this same problem. If one (or a few) organizations are banned from a press gaggle (as happened several weeks ago), the best strategy for the Press (capital P) is to assert its collective authority and boycott, signaling to the administration that they will not be silenced (silent/silent in our diagram…see what I did there?). However, the outlets not barred from the gaggle are incentivized to attend because they get the scoop while others are left out—which is to their organization’s advantage (betray/silent). But when everyone puts their individual incentive ahead of the group incentive, then no one stands up for the Press, and the whole Press is susceptible to future censorship (betray/betray).

The quote I shared at the opening of this article is from Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist and outspoken Putin critic. She watched Putin’s rise with her own eyes, and has lamented the fact that Russians did not stand up for their freedom until it was too late. When they tried—in 2011 and again last month—the effects of protest were limited. Authority had already been centralized. The Press had already been muzzled. Institutions had already been destroyed.

Liberal democracy feels on the ups in this moment, but there’s no reason to believe that will still be the case next time I sit down to write. The only way to ensure its survival is through collective action—swift collective action before it’s too late. It’s a lesson Americans have (thankfully) been quick to learn, and it’s one the Press needs to figure out before it’s too late.

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