The Boston Globe challenged other newspapers to write editorials in support of press freedom today. More than 350 responded.
I’m a huge news fanboy. In my job as an analyst, I got to work with reporters like Jefferson Graham of USA Today, Jon Healey of the San Jose Mercury and the Los Angeles Times, Tony Gnoffo of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Nick Wingfield of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and Scott Kirsner and Hiawatha Bray of the Boston Globe. They were tough, and they didn’t believe everything I said, but they were dedicated to truth and worked hard to figure out what it was and put it on paper. The work they and their colleagues produce is priceless.
The economic and political pressure on today’s reporters is daunting. These are the people who create what Donald Trump calls “The fake, fake, disgusting news.” According to an Ipsos poll released this month, 13% of voters and 23% of Republicans believe that President Trump should shut down mainstream news outlets like CNN, the Washington Post, and The New York Times. Print reporters tend not to draw attention to themselves, so how would they react to a challenge to justify their work?
What I like about their responses is how personal they are. From what they wrote, it’s clear that reporters want us to see them as people, engaged in a dialogue with readers who are also people. “The press” sounds so much like some sort of institution. But especially since newsrooms have slimmed down, individual reporters are important. Their sources are important. Their relationships with readers are important. And we must support them, not just as institutions, but as individuals engaged in day-to-day work that is crucial to an informed citizenry in what’s left of our democracy. Here is some of what they wrote:
It’s a remarkable, unprecedented moment. Frankly, it’s scary. We’re afraid, for our personal safety and for the future of our country. These attacks on the press are an attack on our nation’s foundation. And we’re angry. Angry that we work so hard to carry out the mission our Founding Fathers envisioned, to provide the free flow of information so critical to a well-functioning democracy, only to be demonized by our president for doing our jobs. — The San Jose Mercury News
“In 2018, some of the most damaging attacks are coming from government officials. Criticizing the news media — for underplaying or overplaying stories, for getting something wrong — is entirely right. News reporters and editors are human, and make mistakes. Correcting them is core to our job. But insisting that truths you don’t like are ‘fake news’ is dangerous to the lifeblood of democracy. And calling journalists the “enemy of the people” is dangerous, period.” — The New York Times.
“Criticism of the press is part of healthy debate in a democracy. Media organizations, including ours, sometimes earn the criticism. But demonization of the press is now a calculated White House strategy, intended to impede a process whose purpose is to inform the citizenry. News is information, and information enables those who live in a democracy to make up their minds. This is what the president is openly threatening.” — The Philadelphia Inquirer
“The greatness of America is dependent on the role of a free press to speak the truth to the powerful. To label the press “the enemy of the people” is as un-American as it is dangerous to the civic compact we have shared for more than two centuries.” — The Boston Globe.
“Trump is a difficult politician to cover. His tweets and factually inaccurate statements frequently put him at loggerheads with the media. In a vacuum void of his outlandish statements, some of Trump’s policies would earn more straightforward media coverage. It has become a destructive cycle where the media covers Trump’s words and instead of self-reflection following scathing media reports, Trump cries fake news. It’s a dangerous cry coming from the White House. And so we are taking this opportunity to assure our readers that The Denver Post newsroom and opinion pages are dedicated to bringing you all the facts. We are also encouraging our readers to point it out when we are missing the mark of telling ‘the whole truth.’ We are listening and capable of self reflection.” — The Denver Post
“Public officials are sometimes unnerved by what we do. Some people in power don’t like being questioned. They’d prefer to silence the questioners. But most of them — on some level — appreciate that the press plays an important role in the tricky balancing act that makes our democracy work.” — The Hartford Courant
“We aren’t the reflexive resistance Trump evidently imagines when he hears the word ‘journalists.’ We aren’t enemies of the American people. But many of us have fielded enough angry threats — in the streets, on our phones and at our computers — to chafe when a president calls us that.” — The Chicago Tribune
“There was no ‘fake news’ in Trump’s utterances in a 2005 recording about his belief that male stars get to sexually abuse women. There was no fake news when he attacked the parents of a fallen U.S. soldier during the 2016 Republican National Convention. Trump alone is responsible for his harsh rhetoric about immigrants, those with disabilities, minorities and women. Trump alone is responsible for his remarks defending white supremacists. But if journalists inconvenience him by quoting his exact words, they get labeled as enemies of the people.” — St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Last year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the number of journalists imprisoned worldwide hit an all-time high of 262. The fact that none were jailed in the U.S. is testament to the enduring genius of our Bill of Rights. As [Pentagon Papers attorney Floyd] Abrams recently reminded this newspaper, ‘We would be far less protected if Hamilton and his allies had prevailed and we had a Constitution with no Bill of Rights.’ Indeed, the ‘fact that the First Amendment is in writing,’ Abrams continued, ‘that it has been understood from the very beginning to be not a mere aspirational statement but a legal limitation on the government, and that it has become viewed as the centerpiece of the Constitution, provides us all with infinitely more protection against any president who is tempted to strip us of our freedoms.’ ” — The Dallas Morning News
“Our tradition of a free press as a vital part of our democracy is as important as ever.” — Ronald Reagan, quote published in the Boston Globe.
“Facts matter. But they don’t make themselves known. They don’t, actually, speak for themselves. They need people, such as journalists, or yourselves, to say them out loud.” — The Bangor Daily News
“[T]he free press safeguarded in the U.S. Constitution will endure. Why? Because there are 7,591 words in the U.S. Constitution but none more important than the first three, ‘We the People.’ The Constitution doesn’t call journalists enemies or divide Americans into us and them.” — The San Diego Union Tribune
This is a pregnant moment. The outcome of America and American journalism is in doubt. If enough people continue to follow Trump down the path of demonizing the press — if public opinion actually makes it possible for the government to muzzle and shut down opposition in pursuit of the truth — then we will become an authoritarian state. Only reporters unfettered by government oversight can keep our politicians honest, whether they are local school boards or the president of the whole country. Once this is lost, all is lost.
I hope we will go in another direction. I subscribe to — and pay for — three newspapers. I thank the journalists I know for their work. I highlight their insights. I support the right of every news organization — and yes, that includes Fox News and conservative papers like the Las Vegas Review-Journal — to report on and publish their work. I know that shutting down discourse is the beginning of the end.
When this chapter of our history is written, what ended up happening to the newspapers will tell the story. But newspapers are made of people — fallible people with self-admitted biases, to be sure, but hard-working people whose insights we depend on. They are as essential to the function of government as taxes, elections, or presidents.