Journalists are people. Their defense of the press is personal.

Photo: Al Dia

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.

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  1. Thanks Josh. I people would pay for and pay attention to good journalism the world would be a much better place.

  2. I think Trump should double down on the fake news media. The moment I heard the phrase “white lash” from Van Jones at CNN, I knew the rules of journalism had changed. Answer the question, “who tells the most lies, half truths, insinuations, stereo typing and race baiting?” Answer: The hate Trump media. If Trump says Lebron James is stupid then the media reports “all blacks are stupid.” If Trump says “Latino gangs are animals”, the press reports “all Latinos are animals.” The anti Trump media coverage is 90+% negative according to statistics that I have seen. The media basically says all conservatives are evil and ANY challenging behavior against against conservatives is acceptable. Also the hate Trump media under reports his achievements: Growing economy, job growth, trade deals, tax cuts. So pardon me for saying journalism in this country is a joke!

    1. Your characterization of “the media” is quite broad. I never trust anyone who criticizes an entire group. I also take issue with “statistics I have seen,” — if you have a source, cite it!

      Since you have a problem with “the media,” are you suggesting it’s time to shut it down? If so, who decides and which outlets or reporters? And what happens when power shifts? Should liberals be able to shut down conservative media?

      Attacks on “media” as a whole are baseless. If you have a problem with a report or a reporter, say so. That’s discourse. The only thing I know about “media” as a whole is that we need it. Without it — and all its flaws — we are on our way to an authoritarian regime.

      1. Points taken:
        Here’s two sources showing 90+%
        Negative media coverage against Trump and his policies:
        Washington Examiner:

        Washington Times:

        Concerning my general comments about “media” bias against Trump: Here are a few of the primary offenders that have shown a tenacious negative spin against Trump:
        Anna Navarro
        Don Lemon
        Chris Cuomo
        Jim Acosta
        Joe Scarborough
        Rachel Maddow
        Mika Brzezinski

        I can’t imagine anyone listening to these 6 journalists can come to the conclusion that their views on Trump are neutral, fact-based reporting. Further, their obvious desire to see the President fail screams: “We are ok if the country fails as a result.”

        So, back to my original post from yesterday: Trump must double down on the fake news and hateful commentary from the anti-Trump media.

        1. I begin to see your problem here. You have conflated commentators and editorializers with journalists. Ana Navarro and Rachel Maddow are giving opinions, not reporting the news. They are under no obligation to be balanced. Before Trump himself was running for president, he was firmly anti-Obama. Was this wrong? No, he was giving his opinion, just as these commentators are.

          What’s at issue are the activities of the journalists. These are the people reporting news, what Trump calls “Fake News.” Both of the outlets whose statistics you have cited — the Washington Times and the Washington Examiner — are slanted conservative publications. But let’s examine the question of whether journalists should give “balanced” coverage of Trump — or any president. There are plenty of articles in the mainstream media praising Trump for the things he has arguably done well, like his stewardship of the economy. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/the-economy-grew-at-a-41-percent-rate-in-the-second-quarter-the-highest-since-2014/2018/07/27/b2a174c2-9108-11e8-bcd5-9d911c784c38_story.html?utm_term=.b50c17be1cde Now this article also includes some skepticism. And that is warranted, because the press has to be balanced, not a cheerleader. Of course, on many other issues, like the trial of the Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, the lack of progress on Trump’s North Korea “agreement,” or the mistaken or misleading statistics that Trump tweets, or the separation of families at the southern border, the press has criticized Trump and his policies.

          This is also the role of the press — to criticize the president when reporting shows he has not done well.

          I’m still in favor of press aggressively analyzing and reporting what the president and his people are doing. I would expect the same no matter who is president. The president’s problem isn’t the reporting . . . it is what he is doing.

          1. From the viewpoint of a conservative the line of demarcation between editorializers and journalists has been forever blurred. I think the opinions of Rachel Maddow and the like are viewed as facts by her fans.

          2. Im trying to follow the pretzel logic here. Conservatives cannot tell the difference between editorializers and journalists . .. and Rachel Maddow’s fans think she is a journalist. Therefore she is press, therefore press is biased.

            Look. There are facts. There are journalists seeking them out. Without the journalists, we’re screwed. The inability of idiots of any stripe to be able to tell the difference between facts and opinions doesn’t change this.

        2. If the press had stopped Hitler (or Mussolini) on time, there hadn’t been a 2nd W.W..

          Their views are not neutral, and the do not have to be, but they are fact-based.
          Besides: If Trump fails, it does not mean that the country fails, it will recover instead.
          Trump has already failed and is failing every day.

  3. Yes, good column. I was glad to see the challenge and the newspapers standing in unison against this attack on our free press. There is strength in numbers, and let’s hope it turns the tide and helps to end the madness. That said, I still haven’t forgiven media outlets for chasing every tweet and antic — they were played by Trump, who is a master of the “reality TV” and “WWE” mentality to our collective detriment. Like a stand-up comedian, he knows how to play to an audience — or conversely, (according to Robert Epstein, July 30, 2018 USA Today) is a victim of “sympathetic audience control” — controlled by reactions from his audience — therefore willing to lie in the moment. Media outlets made money off his antics even when it was clear we were all being played (I don’t know why I’m using past tense…). It was clear to me early on in his campaign that — truth and decorum be damned — his goal was to capture the media spotlight every day, and they let him. Now, he uses other lightening rods (firings, celebrity spats, etc.) — it is not news and crowds out news. I am still very concerned that the concept of “framing” is lost on journalists. This failure is evident even in these op-eds. Just by repeating the phrase “enemy of the people” in headlines, they are giving strength to that argument in peoples’ minds (Linguist George Lakoff has a good blog post about this topic.) We need to give more weight to solving problems, and shine the media spotlight on those who are making our collective lives better. Without hope, we devolve into finger-pointing, and tribalism; we give cover to the grifters and con men. Investigative reporting is key to holding people, corporations, and government accountable. Reporting on progress (or lack thereof), framed toward resolution is largely missing. Let’s hope we can right this ship. The icebergs may be melting, but they are currently unmoored and frightfully dangerous.

  4. Without Bullshit? If they really feel that way, then they shouldn’t pad and spin and propagandize the “real” news so it’s slanted to their ideology. That’s where the Fake News thing originated.

    And don’t think for a moment it’s new with Trump. I’ve been pointing out fake news for nearly two decades, and even during the Clinton, Bush, Bush, Obama eras. Nothing new here except a President actually publicly recognizes it.

    It’s the same with the Russian thing. C’mon … we’ve been tracking and reporting Russian intrusions and hacks since late 1999. There’s nothing new here except politicizing it to go against this administration. And if you think either of those is really important, you must not be following China.

    Clean your news if you want to act like journalists. Then we’ll treat you like journalists. As of now, show me a good one. So I can stop believing that journalism is dead

    No bullshit for real.


    1. To add to Fred’s thought:
      – Publish retractions above the fold on page 1. Let the world see when you make “a human mistake”. Don’t hide it in a tiny paragraph at the bottom of page 3 so the public won’t see it
      – Don’t bury the lede in the second paragraph. If the story is truly newsworthy, we’ll read the whole thing. Put the topic in the headline. Even CNN and the Washington Post engage in clickbait bullshit
      – For the visual mediums (television and social media) do what the newspapers do: label the piece “opinion” and put a huge banner across the screen
      – An addition to above, no more disclaimers from media outlets. If you publish it, it IS the opinion of the newspaper. Stop baiting the public and hiding behind the weak statement “That’s not our opinion”

      The most frustrating part of people crying for “free speech” is the notion that ALL speech is FREE. The 1st amendment protects you from the government, not your readers or the public at large.
      If you don’t like your job: QUIT. You chose to be in a profession where your name, and your work, are broadcast to millions of people.
      Clean up your act before you take the moral high ground and call out the bad apples. This problem didn’t start with president #45

      Love the blog, Josh. Thank you for improving my writing. Keep up the good work!