Being cooped up in the heart of the Northeast, where people seem less inclined to push back on authority than they ought to be, it was comforting to hear the Ricochet podcasters raise a point that’s been bothering me. Where are the reporters in our free press — this Fourth Estate — challenging government officials to explain the source of the authority they’re claiming?
This is at every level of government. In the Newport Daily News, reporter Marcia Pobzeznik let’s Tiverton’s new interim town administrator get away with simply saying, We’ll probably have to extend [the date of the town’s budget referendum] yet again,” without seeming to wonder whether the town’s charter or state law allow that to happen.
On WPRI, Steph Machado interrogates the Roman Catholic bishop about palms that were offered on Palm Sunday against the governor’s orders… by a church that isn’t within the bishop’s authority. Machado doesn’t offer any information about what gave the governor power to issue her directive despite a pretty obvious conflict with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In the Boston Globe, Dan McGowan writes about the inchoate collaborative of governors to reopen the economy regionally and quotes Governor Raimondo as saying that she doesn’t know when she will begin allowing companies to start up again, but “I’m in the process of putting together metrics that I want to see in place.” He doesn’t raise any questions about the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution or, again, ask what gives Raimondo the power to pick and choose metrics that will please her sufficiently to allow business owners to operate, employees to work, and customers to do business.
As with many other long-running social and civic debates, the COVID-19 crisis is bringing basic questions about journalism front and center. What is a free press for? Is it to have a room full of people transcribing the governor’s comments for the public so everybody is sure to get the message, or is it something else?
I hinted at these questions in a comment to a related Facebook post by Dan McGowan, and another commenter responded that McGowan was ” reporting on what’s happening. No opinions.” That’s not quite accurate. My concern is that journalists are not acknowledging that a questionable restriction of our rights is part of what’s happening. They’re ignoring that aspect — or at best presenting it as something that might have to be considered down the road — meaning that they’re pretending that it is not happening.
Another unreported part of what’s happening is that the rates of increase in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all going down. It’s one thing to catch a reader’s eye by saying that the number of coronavirus-related deaths has almost doubled since last Wedensday, but it’s also part of the story that deaths were increasing at more than 15% per day last week, and that’s dropped to 4% today.
This isn’t just games with numbers. The slowing growth and the failure of models to come anywhere close to predicting our low numbers of hospitalizations and deaths is evidence that what we’re doing already is working. That being the case, it should require some additional rationale to tighten the shackles even more. Instead, Governor Raimondo is talking about maintaining some level of her martial-law-lite until there’s a vaccine, even if that takes a year.
Again: What gives her that power? At what point does a “state of emergency” become merely a legal term of art rather than a fact?
UPDATE (4/14/20 8:02 p.m.)
Talk about a real-time lesson in how media bias can set the story and ramp up concern about Constitutional order when journalists want to. Change the circumstances just a little bit (to a politician journalists don’t like pushing an effort to reduce government imposition on our lives), and you get this:
While Trump can use his bully pulpit, including his daily White House briefings and Twitter account, to try to threaten states with consequences and pressure governors to bend to his will, “there are real limits on the president and the federal government when it comes to domestic affairs,” said John Yoo, a University of California at Berkeley law school professor.
As I wrote above, deciding what facts to focus on gives journalists a way to shape the story to match their opinions or worldviews. In Rhode Island, the governor abusing her power isn’t something that’s happening, inasmuch as it isn’t a fact worth reporting. Nationwide, however, the president’s view of his imperial powers is something that’s happening because the media and allies in the Democrat Party are focusing on the disagreement.
And from what I can tell, it’s unfair spin. Based on the White House transcript, it seems clear that President Trump is talking about the “bands of governors” who are forming regional sub-governments to orchestrate the opening of their economies. A good case could be made (to say the least) that this is a violation of the Commerce Clause, which puts interstate commerce in the federal government’s hands.
To be sure, the federal government has been increasingly abusing that authority to impose economic restrictions on individuals and limit states’ ability to experiment with economic policy. In this case, however, one can see the reason for such a clause. If states formed economic cartels, they could create imbalances between states and push the nation to dissolution and war.
For a mental exercise, it’s interesting to consider a what if: What if this were President Obama pushing back against a group of conservative states that were forming a consortium to open up their economies more quickly than the president wanted?