Speaking Up for a Free Press

Something quite remarkable – unprecedented, actually – is scheduled to take place on Aug. 16. More than 100 newspapers across the country will mount a coordinated editorial response to President Trump’s increasingly frequent attacks on the media. Responding to a rallying cry from the Boston Globe, papers ranging from large metropolitan dailies to small weeklies will publish editorials defending freedom of the press and their critical role in this democracy. They will be joined by members of the broadcast media as well, with the strong support of the Radio-Television Digital News Association.

These editorial writers will be reacting to the constant stream of messages from the president, in tweets and speeches, that the mainstream media are “the enemy of the people,” “fake, fake disgusting news,” “fake news media,” and so forth.

One school of thought has held that replying to such charges is pointless because the president’s pronouncements are either hollow rhetoric or impulsive ramblings or political fodder for his base – or some combination of the three. Furthermore, since the First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press, and the courts are willing to uphold that freedom, the president’s words can have no real effect on the media. Thus, this line of thinking concludes, the act of replying to hollow assertions becomes a hollow act itself.

However, the real danger of this continuous anti-media tirade is that it has the power to turn popular opinion against the press. Our democracy depends on the public’s confidence in the press as a purveyor of truth and watchdog of government. Without that trust, the press’s ability to function as one of our democracy’s checks and balances is diminished and the citizenry suffers a loss. But public confidence in the press appears to be shrinking.

A Monmouth University poll last March found that 31 percent of respondents believed traditional major TV and newspaper media outlets report “fake news” regularly while 46 percent said it happens occasionally. This 77 percent who believe fake news gets reported regularly or occasionally – three out of four respondents – is a significant increase from the 63 percent of the public who felt that way last year.

“The belief that major media outlets disseminate fake news at least occasionally has increased among every partisan group over the past year, including Republicans (89% up from 79% in 2017), independents (82% up from 66%), and Democrats (61% up from 43%). In addition to the fact that a clear majority of Democrats now believe that traditional media outlets report fake news at least occasionally, the poll also finds that a majority of Republicans (53%) feel this happens on a regular basis (up from 37% in 2017),” according to the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Journalists at major media organizations are not in the business of making up stories out of thin air. That’s just not how it works. For pure fiction, one would be better served by the many bloggers, conspiracy theorists, and social media mavens who traffic in disinformation and outright falsehoods.

Regrettably, it is unlikely that a one-day barrage of pro-media editorials will change the minds of those who are firmly convinced the major media are untrustworthy, untruthful, vindictive, and even un-American. Yet it is worth the effort, if only to remind the rest of us that this country – unlike so many in the world – enjoys a press that is free to speak out and to hold government leaders accountable, despite their protestations. We applaud this editorial endeavor.

A one-time reaction to the president’s rhetoric, however, is not enough. It must be followed by an ongoing commitment to truthful and honest reporting every day – and a willingness to act ethically and responsibly in accord with the highest journalistic standards. This is the only thing that can change minds (at least some minds) about the major media in the long term. The Media Institute is an unabashed supporter of a free press. We’re also a staunch advocate of excellence in journalism. We believe the two go hand-in-hand – and so they must if the media are not to be marginalized.

Richard T. Kaplar is Executive Director of The Media Institute.