Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Campaign abuse demands a Journalism Bill of Rights

Journalists have been a punching bag in the 2016 campaign -- and the public's right to know has suffered. It's time that reporters begin asserting their basic rights.

So it turns out that -- according to a story on the front page of the Daily News and Inquirer this morning -- a love interest of Philadelphia D.A. Seth Williams has been charged with slashing the tires on two city vehicles (including the D.A.'s) last November. It's a titillating story, perhaps, but it's also an important one, because it raises serious questions about how both Williams' office and Philadelphia police handled the case. And it's almost certain that this caper would have stayed buried under the rug -- were it not for dogged work by three local journalists.

When it seemed hopelessly stalled amid official hemming and hawing, journalists Chris Brennan, Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker wrote about the strange case in the newspaper -- and suddenly it gained new life. The same scenario played out with a quashed probe of gift-taking by Philadelphia state lawmakers; an expose in the Inquirer not only led to charges and resignations by five of the legislators, but touched off the chain of events that forced Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane from office.

The truth is that while budget cuts have decimated the number of journalists that hold Philadelphia politicians and other key figures accountable, individual local reporters still do some remarkable work. What about the national level? I have deeply mixed feelings about the performance of the inside-the-Beltway media. Ever since the war in Iraq, I've used this blog to attack timidity and instiutional flaws in my own profession. But right now, the media is under the kind of assault that threatens the entire profession, from the White House to the streets of West Philly.

The other night, HBO's John Oliver devoted a segment to steep cuts to local journalism and why that's such good news for corrupt government officials who want to get away with bad stuff. America showed its love -- both for Oliver's wit and for great journalism -- by sharing that clip on social media hundreds of thousands of times.

Then the sun rose for a new day, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton went back out on the campaign trail, and the folks who laughed out loud at Oliver's bit went back to their keyboards to hit social media and do what most politically engaged people like to do in 2016: Bash journalism, and cheerlead for candidates whose press strategies range from old-fashioned obfuscation to brownshirt-brand harassment of the American media.

As suggested above, covering presidential politics is only one aspect of what the media does. But just as the campaigns of Trump, Clinton and the runners-up and also-rans that came and went before them have -- for better or worse, mostly worse -- illuminated the national zeitgeist, the way we view campaign journalism is the biggest spotlight we have on what we think about journalism, press freedom and the 1st Amendment in the mid-2010s.

Not very much, apparently.

Reporters who cover Donald Trump are routinely penned in small areas like so many heads of cattle, then berated from the podium as "scum" and the "worst people" by the presidential candidate himself, in the kind of language you'd expect to hear from a tinpot dictator on the verge of an ethnic cleansing campaign. Major news organizations have been blacklisted, amid threats to gut the laws on libel down to the press-freedom level of a banana republic. And both campaigns are setting new records for avoiding journalists who might ask them tough questions -- banning journalists from their campaign plane and going months without unscripted press conferences in favor of phone calls to cable shows, late-night comics, and "town halls" with hand-picked reporters.

In a sense, this is a sign of the times. This may prove to be the first presidential campaign in which more rank-and-file voters get their news from social media -- especially Facebook -- than from what we now call "the traditional media." Like-minded friends share opinionated pieces that bolster their world view, and what's fascinating -- although not surprising -- is how new quasi-news orgs have rushed to meet this demand. Pro-Bernie Sanders Facebook friends can get their campaign "news" from (Philly-based) US Uncut, while Hillary fanatics can read Blue Nation Review. Don't even get me started on Breitbart News.

That speaks to an even more worrisome point. Yes, it's despicable when Trump all but calls for violence against reporters from the podium, just as Clinton's campaign of media avoidance is incredibly aggravating. But the biggest reason that the notion of a free and fully functioning press -- a cornerstone of the 1st Amendment -- is dying out there in the summer heat is because of the apathy of the American people. If the average citizen really cared about a free press -- if conservatives cared about the 1st Amendment as much as they care for the 2nd Amendment, or the way that liberal revere the 14th Amendment -- then this wouldn't even be an issue. The candidates would stop abusing the media because the voters would demand they stop.

Hating the media used to be a conservative thing -- going back to Spiro Agnew and the time of "impudent snobs." It used to be that liberals' only lament about the media is that they should do a better job in questioning authority. But today, many self-described progressives hate the press, too. It's been appalling to see self-proclaimed liberals tripping over each other in recent days to defend Clinton for not having a press conference because reporters might ask her some dumb questions. Really? What happens when she becomes president? Look, I don't care how many whales you've saved or how many Toyota Priuses you own. If you hate the free press, you are not a liberal.

But then journalists are our own worst enemy on this stuff. No member of the media wants to speak up, because then we'd be "advocates." Gasp! I'm sorry, but the reason that journalists are herded into tiny pens and subject to blacklists and to threats and verbal abuse, is --at least in part -- because we let them get away with it. When are the people tasked with preserving the American tradition of a free press going to fight back and scream it? Enough is enough!

After the Framers drafted the Constitution here in Philadelphia, they decided it was important and go out and enumerate the fundamental rights of citizens: The Bill of Rights. In 2016, when a majority of citizens are "meh" at best when it comes to that document's 1st Amendment, it's time to go back and spell out a Journalism Bill of Rights.

This would be my first draft:

1. Freedom from harassment. Candidates like Trump who verbally abuse the media and who encourage their supporters to make verbal or even physical threats towards reporters (who are sitting ducks in small roped-off areas) may not be violating the letter of the 1st Amendment -- technically presidential candidates aren't government officials, although one will be -- but are absolutely violating the spirit of it. It's important that journalists need to speak out and condemn this harassment ... in real time.

2. Freedom of movement. Again, keeping reporters in holding pens (while attendees from the general public are relatively free to move around an arena) is nothing more than harassment by a different name, intended to prevent journalists from properly doing our jobs and interviewing the candidate's supporters or protesters in the audience. It is a practice that must be challenged by any means necessary.

3. Freedom from the blacklist. All credible news organizations have a right to cover the American campaign for president -- that's about as fundamental to a free press as it gets. When the Trump campaign bars an organization like the Washington Post or Buzzfeed from its campaign rallies, that's an affront to the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and every other organization that is not blacklisted. News organizations should form a united front in opposing this most un-American activity.

4. Freedom from official intimidation. Again, threats from a candidate like Trump to change libel laws to make it easier for the powerful (like Peter Thiel and his allies) to use the courts to put a news organization (like Gawker) out of business, or to sic the full force of the federal government on the media in a manner that would make Watergate look like a candy-store shoplifting, violate the spirit of the First Amendment.

5. Freedom of access. This is the trickiest one -- it's certainly true that neither Trump nor Clinton have a legal obligation to hold a news conference (something Clinton has essentially not done for months, although Trump could also do a lot better) or allow reporters to travel on their plane or occasionally make themselves available to answer questions aside from a few interviews with a favored anchor. But I'd argue that both candidates have a moral obligation to make themselves more transparent than they have so far in 2016. And it's up to the media to find innovative ways to apply that pressure.

And then the voters have to care.

These are just suggestions -- hopefully the starting point for a conversation. If you're a journalist or a non-journalists and have additions or subtractions, I'd love to hear your thoughts. But as I've watched this campaign unfold, it's seemed clear the usual way for journalists to deal with the current threat -- writing the occasional meek Page A-16 story and then going back to being abused -- is too little and too late. Journalists -- or the handful of regular folks who agree journalism is still the best, if flawed, way to hold politicians accountable -- need to actively defend these fundamental rights. Or there may not be a functional press covering the election in 2020.