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No one was particularly surprised when Vladmir Putin recently won reelection by a landslide. The near universal reaction could be characterized by a roll of the eyes and a sighed “what do you expect, it’s Russia.” We’ve seen this before, after all — it is his fifth term — but there is something new in its significance for us. What’s changed is the newly fragile condition of our own democracy, making the Moscow “election” emphatically relevant to America. Many are the differences between Russian and American society, but one of those gaps has shrunk with alarming speed over the past decade. Putin’s power has been built on the bones of a free press. America once had a fiercely independent media that was not just the hallmark of our liberty but also the guardian that kept our society free. But our mainstream press has abandoned its sentinel post, leaving America vulnerable as we move toward the most important election in generations. 

The Supreme Court recently cast a spotlight on the health of our free speech when it examined the Administration’s efforts to stifle critics through manipulation of social media. Reports on the hearing, however, missed the fundamental issue. Apologists asserted that there had been no top-down coercion of speech — “nothing to see here, move on.” But the ultimate issue wasn’t that the Administration initiated censorship, it was that our leaders were enabled by the repression of speech that was already endemic in the popular media. The Supreme Court will decide if indirect manipulations violate constitutional protections. Whatever the outcome, we are learning a bitter lesson: the Constitution, in all its brilliance, does not protect us from repression that grows outside government, from within our culture. Free speech relies on the Constitution, yes, but it also relies on our social compact and its moral framework of truth, which is collapsing in vital parts of society.  

Our mainstream media has been surrendering its freedom for years, not by any dictate from the top but by a seismic shift in its values and self-perceived role in society. The process started slowly, long ago, when publishers and editors discovered a gold mine in obsessing over celebrity heroes, then accelerated when they found that a celebrity villain offered the same rewards. They learned to favor sensation over substance, never worried that their chosen villains are not always evil, nor their heroes always virtuous. For them an off-color remark or over-the-top boast from one of their celebrities becomes more important than any substantive dialogue about policy. Why worry about terrorists infiltrating across the border when what the public really wants to hear is how the President blasted the “Neanderthals” who don’t embrace his climate agenda? Thus began the dumbing down of their readers. They taught their increasingly shallow audience that political engagement had nothing to do with liberty or constitutional government, but was simply about loving to hate the villain of choice.

The celebrity fixation justified, even required, hyperbole, since their stars need to be larger than life, meaning the media accords them vastly more authority, and credibility, than they deserve. Eventually for the legacy media everything — from the climate cycle to devolution of rights to states, passage of school choice laws and scores of invented microaggressions — became existential threats. George Bernard Shaw once complained that the media can’t distinguish between “the end of the world and a bicycle accident.” Shaw was engaged in hyperbole when he spoke those words but they are no longer exaggeration.

The arrival of woke culture proved a heavenly match for such journalists.  It became instinctive for them to shoehorn their new woke ideology into every mention of culture and history, a process requiring gross oversimplification, which is why much of their reporting has devolved into the vernacular of bumper stickers. What started as a gradual inching away from universal truths has become endless variations on the same shallow sentiment that has overtaken most campuses: as long as I shout loud enough my ignorance is better than your knowledge.

“Journalists were never intended to be the cheerleaders of a society, the conductors of applause,” observed a wise journalist of another generation, Chet Huntley. “Tragically,” Huntley added, “that is their assigned role in authoritarian societies, but not here yet.” Huntley would have a very different view of American journalism if alive today — certainly his warning is more relevant than ever. The natural curiosity that once drove reporters to assert truth to counter repression has shriveled up and died in many. We have witnessed the end of critical thinking for these reporters and their audience, and the end of intellectual integrity for many newspapers. No better proof of this exists than the recurring polling data demonstrating that over ninety percent of mainstream journalists embrace the ideology of the Left.

Our media is quick to throw out descriptors like “authoritarian” and “totalitarian” when characterizing their agreed enemy but they are blind to the totalitarian effect of their own words. Once they stopped fighting repression it was but a small step to begin participating in it — stifling every criticism or challenging thought with a slogan, party soundbite, or label is just another form of censorship. They created a whole new vocabulary of repression, metamorphosing into the American commentariat. What we fail to sufficiently appreciate is how deeply this process of suffocating speech has devalued truth in the public forum. Without truth there is no freedom of the press. Without freedom of the press there is no freedom. Without freedom there is no democracy.

Government isn’t going to fix the problem, at least not today’s government, which embraces no principle but simply bends with the woke winds. The social compact that is the ultimate protector of truth belongs to us. It’s up to us to preserve it. We may take comfort in hearing that over half our population shuns popular culture and its woke underpinnings.  But we need reminding that far less than half of Germans were Nazis and likewise far fewer Russians were communists, and that did not stop the rise of Hitler and Stalin. Now is the time to speak out, to stop merely shrugging off the repression. Now is the time to reject the repressive vocabulary and to treat legacy media with the mockery it deserves. Now is the time to speak truth for freedom. The existence of the Silent Majority is no longer a comfort when that silence means the defeat of truth and mute acceptance of budding tyranny. To continue the silence is moral surrender.

Eliot Pattison’s nineteen novels include the recently released Freedom’s Ghost, latest in his series exploring the complex people and events leading to the founding of the United States.

Image: Pexels/Eva Bronzini