An Insider’s View of a Changing America

How media and Washington have changed over the last 40 years

The following is from a Trumpet Brief sent out yesterday. These daily e-mails contain personal messages from the Trumpet staff. Click here to join the nearly 20,000 members of our mailing list, so you don’t miss another message.

There’s no new thing under the sun, Solomon said—yet in some ways, these are truly bizarre, unprecedented times. Yesterday I got a bit of fresh insight into that fact through the eyes of a seasoned political observer.

Fox News’s Chris Wallace visited Oklahoma City to deliver a lecture titled “America Under President Trump: A View From Washington.” The “view” he offered was less about America than about Washington itself—but it is of a city utterly transformed from the one Wallace began reporting on in 1978 during the Carter administration. From his perspective, the changes through the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush years, even the Obama years, were nothing compared to the wildness of the Trump era. “These have been the most interesting, most newsworthy nine months of my career,” Wallace mused.

What to make of today’s political scene? Wallace answered by citing Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman’s famous statement on how to write a hit script: “Nobody knows anything.” “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work,” Goldman said. “Every time out it’s a guess.”

That’s topsy-turvy Washington today, Wallace said. Conventions on appropriate conduct for reporters and officials are in flux. Establishment lawmakers are scrambling to retain relevance with a volatile public. One-time bipartisan compromise has given way to political trench warfare.

Despite having covered several presidents in his long career, Wallace says with the current administration he feels like a “cub reporter.” For 14 years doing Fox News Sunday, he has customarily finished most of his preparation by early Saturday afternoon. Since Donald Trump was elected, though, a midnight tweet or unusual weekend statement from an administration official routinely necessitates major revisions right up to show time. “You’re never done,” he said. “In 40 years of covering Washington, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Adding to the tumult is the Wild West nature of today’s media landscape. The reign of the New York Timesabc-cbs-nbc oligarchy has been challenged by the rise of 24-hour cable news networks, the panoply of online news sources, and the explosion of social media. Using Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, Wallace noted, President Trump now reaches 100 million people directly, with no media filter.

Seventy-year-old Wallace, having migrated from the Boston Globe to nbc and abc to Fox News, has kept reasonable pace with that change. But he bemoans how today’s reporters have become “players on the field” rather than dispassionate “umpires calling balls and strikes.” At the same time, he takes exception to the president’s routine cries of “fake news,” which he feels is just him “trying to discredit any news he doesn’t like.”

The media must play a watchdog role, Wallace said. He cited America’s founders’ wisdom in guaranteeing the right to a free press. Leaders need supervision and accountability. The public must be informed and educated. “Free, vigorous media,” he said, “is an essential part of democracy.”

This is indisputable. Just look at the problems that arise under autocrats who can muzzle information and silence dissent at will. However, as free and as vigorous as the media may be, America still suffers from the problems caused by an uninformed, uneducated public. Why?

During a question-and-answer session, the moderator asked Mr. Wallace: Given the onslaught of information out there, how can you tell fake news from real news? Wallace answered, “It definitely puts more responsibility on the consumer.”

How very true. But how many conscientiously exercise that responsibility?

It made me want to ask Mr. Wallace what it was like for him, with his somewhat old-school commitment to journalistic objectivity and letting the facts speak, to operate within a climate increasingly overwhelmed by demonstrable lies. In today’s media circus, competition for eyeballs and attention is fierce. Objectivity is less marketable than demagoguery, truth less popular than drama. And everyone can easily consume only the information that reinforces the views they already hold. People tend to get comfortable within echo chambers of thought, which drive them to greater ideological extremes.

The effect is that spin and narrative take on hurricane force, while truth is the whisper no one hears.

The other effect is polarization—a country as divided as the congressional chamber, where lawmakers would rather hurl insults than seek agreement for the good of the nation.

When problems arise, we tend to point fingers. In America, the media and the political class get a huge share of the blame. But in the end, especially within this country, we get the leaders, and the press, we deserve. The disorder in Washington is a reflection of the disorder in America.

We all must take seriously our responsibility to seek truth. Just as the nation’s well-being depends on its citizens being informed and educated, our individual lives require that we fulfill Jesus Christ’s admonition to watch and pray (Luke 21:36). The Trumpet staff always aims to help you fulfill that responsibility.