During the presidential election cycle, the press certainly didn't do itself any favors with its numerous assurances that Hillary Clinton would be the next president.
Now that the election's over, though, the media has an entirely different accountability issue on its hands with the rise of “fake news.”
During a White House press briefing on Monday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest had to explain to one reporter exactly why the Obama administration hasn't “done anything” about fake news on social media — and reportedly had to cite free speech protections under the First Amendment no less than four times in the process.
The question, which came from The New York Times' Gardiner Harris, centered on an incident from Sunday where an armed man — inspired by an online conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate — sparked a police response to the pizzeria at the center of the theory.
Noting that the pizzeria has been “getting direct death threats” for months over the theory, Harris asked why the Obama administration doesn't prioritize such threats — and the fake news that inspires it — the same as “online threats from jihadists”:
"I’ve never heard you talk about what the administration is doing, even not just on a law enforcement basis but a policy basis, reaching out to these Silicon Valley companies.
I mean, the President has recently been discussing the problem of fake news on Facebook. Why hasn’t there been...a growing concern on the part of the administration about what seems to be a growing amount of vitriol directed at a variety of people, sometimes violent vitriol, within the United States?"
In response, The Daily Caller notes, Earnest was forced to “remind the reporter that the government cannot censor free speech,” saying:
"Obviously, there are some important First Amendment issues that come into play when we're having this discussion.
Those First Amendment issues aren't prioritized in the same way when we're talking about overseas terrorist organizations that don't enjoy the same kinds of protections that American citizens do."
When pressed by Harris whether “the market just will have to police itself” in terms of fake news, Earnest again had to reiterate that the government's role “in all of this is going to be necessarily limited by” the First Amendment.
For any wondering what harm could possibly come from the government stepping in to censor national news, a good case study might be China.
As Business Insider notes:
The government puts a lot of effort into erasing the 1989 massacre from books, TV, and internet resources that are available to its citizens.
China's younger generation seems mostly unaware of the student-led, pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing that drove Chinese soldiers to kill hundreds (or possibly thousands) of people.
By banning specific terms and phrases, the Chinese government has effectively removed the incident from national memory, despite the fact that a photo of the protest has become iconic to much of the rest of the world:
It's, of course, far from the only example of the consequences of state-run media.
In North Korea, for instance, the state newspaper infamously ran a headline just this year that claimed that Christian evangelist Rev. Billy Graham had stated that the country's late “Supreme Leader Kim Il Sung is the God who rules today’s human world.”
While these are certainly extreme examples, it's not hard to see how giving the government the ability to censor the press — and therefore hand over the power to determine what's 'newsworthy' for its citizens — could be a step down a dangerous path.