Columnist’s note: This is an excerpt from a speech delivered last Thursday at the Drexel Writing Festival. You can read the entire speech here.
More than two years after Donald Trump became 45th president of the United States, talking about saving America’s free press seems both an urgent matter and, to some people, something of a red herring. As the nattering nabobs of online commentary remind me every day here at Philly.com, I can write columns and give speeches like this one — criticizing the president, even calling for his removal from office — without worrying about getting arrested and thrown in jail. That’s a good thing — but should we really set the bar for press freedom that low?
The reality is that the Trump era is the most perilous time to be a journalist in my lifetime and probably in American history. The leader of this country has proclaimed journalists — citizens like me and probably your neighbors, regular folks who see their job as simply keeping your community or your nation informed — as “the enemies of the people,” a phrase with grim historical echoes dating back to Joseph Stalin. At mass rallies of cheering acolytes, Trump points to a fenced-in pen of journalists as zoo-like objects of derision.
The U.S. government has stopped mostly holding briefings for the press and when it does give out information, it frequently lies; Trump himself has been documented telling more than 9,000 falsehoods in just 27 months as president. Reporters must do their jobs in an unprecedented climate of fear. In Annapolis, Maryland, a man with a grievance and a gun walked into a newsroom and slaughtered 5 people. Others are bullied or harassed — online or in real life. I’ve seen it personally. For the first time in nearly 40 years as a journalist, I’ve had to call police because a death threat was mailed to my home.
Why is this happening?
When the president and his minions lied in his very first weekend — about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, no less — it was a big deal. But somewhere between lie No. 6,000 and lie No. 7,000 — OK, I’m guesstimating — folks were just too numbed and exhausted to care. Which actually is the whole point — to overwhelm the public past the point of caring. As for journalism, this is the point where reporting the news stops to matter, because half the nation has been convinced that the news is fake and the other half is too depressed to get out of bed.
In December 2016, or about six weeks after Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States, I traveled to Hershey, Pa., for his victory rally in the large hockey arena there. About 8,000 people attended, and I got there early on a frigid day to talk to some of them. It was striking how few wanted to discuss “issues” like jobs, even though central Pennsylvania has been plagued by chronic unemployment and under-employment. Instead, everyone wanted to talk about their loathing of the media, including — for a few of them, anyway — me. For them, it mattered little if Trump ever followed up on his promise to replace Obamacare with “something really great.” Their hopes and dreams were plastered on signs and shouted in an occasional chant that had just two words: “CNN sucks.” The medium truly had become the message.
But if resentment and even outright hatred of the media is a driving force of the Trump presidency, how does this play out in actual governing? Many have argued that the president’s talk about actual retribution against journalists is little more than just talk — that there’s no policy component. As a candidate in 2016 and since his election, Trump has frequently said that he wants to “open up” libel laws which would make it easier for public figures — such as himself — to sue journalists for unflattering stories. But this still hasn’t resulted in actual legislation, nor is such a bill likely now that Democrats control the House of Representatives.
So is the fact that the legal framework for a free press still exists, and that — unlike many of those countries ranked much lower than No. 45 for press freedom — reporters aren’t being tossed in jail or routinely murdered a cause for celebration?
Yes and no, but mainly no.
For one thing, the Trump administration is successfully demolishing the idea that our government should be accessible and available to the people. Full-blown presidential press conferences are rare, and briefings by the White House press secretary Sarah Sanders have devolved from an every-weekday occurrence to an average of little more than one every month. Even worse, this attitude has filtered down toward essential agencies like the State Department and the Pentagon, which hasn’t had a press briefing in — and I swear I’m not making this up — more than 300 days. I mean, it’s not like the Defense Department and its annual $750 billion budget does anything important, right?
Other impacts of Trump’s war on the press are both intangible yet very real. One is the increasing climate of fear in which journalists must do our jobs. Much of this I know anecdotally — the stories I hear from friends and colleagues about the constant online harassment, the threatening emails, and occasionally worse. This was punctuated by tragedy in the summer of 2018, when a deranged reader with a longstanding grievance blacked into the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, and fatally gunned down five journalists.
And yet too many newsroom leaders are pretending this isn’t happening — that the war on objective reality that was amped up by Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, and that all our current president’s men now seem determined to finish off, doesn’t even exist. The epigraph for this attitude was uttered by Marty Baron of the Washington Post, the journalist who, for better or worse, will be remembered as Liev Schreiber in the movie “Spotlight.” Asked how the Post is responding to Trump, Baron said: “We’re not at war… We’re at work.”
I could not disagree more. True, we’re not in a declared war with Donald Trump — that would be both counter-productive and on some level antithetical to the fundamental practice of journalism. But we are in a war for the truth, for objective reality — and if we don’t grab our weapons and start fighting back we’re about to get flattened by a blitzkrieg of tanks.
The problem with mainstream journalism in the Trump era is the broader problem of journalism in the post-Watergate era generally: Too much focus on the process, of checking off the boxes of objectivity and balance and making sure that every one hand has an other hand, even when those five digits in the other hand are clutching a dagger. Meanwhile, there’s much less thought about the end result — about what journalism is actually for. We need to rediscover the soul buried deep inside of the keyboard of that objectivity machine. And that begins, I believe, with the simple acknowledgement that a free press has an agenda: A functional democracy.
So when democracy is under attack — as it is in the Trump era — then saving journalism and saving democracy become the same job. The issue isn’t that the media needs to be relentlessly anti-Trump. The issue is that the media needs to fight relentlessly for the fundamental human principles that Trump has so consistently aligned his government against.
You can’t have democracy — or a free press — unless every citizen has the right to vote. In an era of shrinking voting rights and out-and-out ballot-box suppression, newsrooms need to ask themselves — what am I doing to expose and get rid of the laws that make it harder for a citizen to cast her or his ballot? Have we enlisted our resources not only to help our readers register to vote and get to their polling place, but to help them make informed choices when they get there?
You can’t have democracy — or a free press — when the human rights of people inside our borders are under assault, whether those people are the refugees who show up at our southern border seeking the freedom of asylum and not a concentration camp masquerading as a tent city, or whether it’s the black and brown kids who want to walk down their own streets without being stopped and frisked and occasionally shot by cops who act like an army of occupation. It’s not simply a matter of how do we expose these wrongs, but how do we use our power as a news organization to help America reconnect with its humanity.
You can’t have democracy — or a free press — without a planet. And we’re not going to have much of a planet in a few decades unless we help our readers to have faith in science. That means no more “on one hand, on the other hand” when it comes to climate change and the consensus of the world’s leading climatologists. It means giving our readers the truth, making that truth so engaging that they’ll pay attention — and tossing the oil-soaked money changers out of the temple.
And here’s one more thing. You can’t have a democracy — or a free press — without… a free press. Rather than hide behind the First Amendment and pray that no one notices us while we’re at work and not at war, we need to be much louder about proclaiming who we are, the role we play in every city and town across America, and the ways that this function that the Founding Fathers understood was so important for a functioning republic is now under assault.
Yes, this is about fending off the president’s attacks, but it’s about so much more. The disappearance of local news in the 21st Century has now been studied by academics and they’ve found that towns without journalists as watchdogs see voter participation drop and spending on bond issues or other measures of waste or corruption increase. Most news orgs won’t survive unless they win back local dollars, but that won’t happen unless we win back hearts and minds.