“Is there any bias?” This is the first question I ask my dad when I forcefully place my school newspaper in his hands the second he gets home from work. My dad is that guy who gets all of his news from Fox, argues intensely with family members on Facebook, and boycotts anything with a “liberal” agenda. When I say, “I can't wait to be editor in chief of the New York Times,” he tells me he's lost me, that he never thought I'd end up a liar like “them.”
While my dad’s views are more extreme, they aren't particularly unique. He's actually part of a larger movement in our society in which people are losing trust in traditional news sources. According to the Pew Research Center only two in ten adults trust traditional media sources, and 74% of adults believe that the media is biased. This didn't happen overnight, but it is putting our country at risk. For the reasons that the freedom of the press is in danger in our current political climate, the press keeps the government in check, and the freedom of the press is only protected by citizen enforcement, the American people have to make an effort to protect the first amendment in different ways, including becoming informed and defending journalists.
Before we can reinforce the rights the press is losing, we need to examine what is causing this loss. It is hard to ignore President Trump’s unprecedented disregard for the media. He began using the term “fake news,” before he was even elected in order to cause distrust in the media. In recent press conferences, the media has described Press Secretary Sean Spicer as combative and there have been instances in which he argued with and attacked individual reporters. Most alarmingly, President Trump tweeted, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” With the president attacking the media so vigorously, it makes sense that citizens might begin to lose trust in it as well. By singling out specific reporters, he opens opportunities for public ridicule which only discourages all further reporting.
Recently, the Trump administration has expressed displeasure with journalists using anonymous sources, stating that “they [journalists] shouldn't be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody's name. Let their name be put out there.” While these new statements are dangerous, they are not entirely new.
During the Obama administration, multiple cases were opened against reporters attempting to force them to name and testify against their anonymous sources. The Justice Department and the F.B.I. also spied on reporters by monitoring their phone records, and suggested a Fox News Reporter was a co-conspirator in a criminal case. Executive director of the nonprofit Freedom of the Press Foundation said, “Obama has laid all the groundwork Trump needs for an unprecedented crackdown on the press.” Dana Priest, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post, added, “The moral obstacles have been cleared for Trump’s attorney general to go even further, to forget that it’s a free press that has distinguished us from other countries, and to try to silence dissent by silencing an institution whose job is to give voice to dissent.”
The fact is that recent administrations have all helped to create this new culture where the public distrusts and shames the press.
Now that we understand that a culture of media distrust is being created, we need to understand why this is dangerous to our democracy. Some might argue that aggression is necessary when it comes to the sort of bias, “fake” news that president Trump is referencing. Those people might say that Trump is defending innocent citizens from the manipulation of the press. However, the problem with supporting actions against the press when it’s “fake” or “too liberal” is that we run the risk of discrediting all media, leaving us with no information except what the government wants to tell us.
A Huffington Post contributor Jason Fuller wrote, “if Trump and his team can ultimately position the American news media as something to be shunned and discredited, his supporters?—?and potentially a large chunk of the American populace?—?will be less likely to trust their reporting as the full gamut of their offenses comes to light. This in itself will make it much harder to eliminate the threats his administration’s policies present to America.” Quite simply, by creating a culture that doesn’t trust the press, the government will run unchecked and will be able to pass policies that could hurt citizens.
Historically, the press has always had the responsibility of exposing the injustices of government, and without that institution, there is nothing stopping the government from hurting its citizens. For example, in 1996, reporter Gary Webb, published a series of articles known as “Dark Alliance.” These articles detailed ways in which the CIA ignored drug traffickers that were bringing cocaine into Los Angeles and accused the Reagan Administration of protecting these dealers from prosecution. At the time, the government, public, and journalists alike all looked down upon Webb. He lost his job and was not able to find work again. However, his writing prompted internal government investigations which eventually proved that everything he uncovered was correct. In this situation, the public was against a journalist who tried to uncover the truth, but imagine what this writer could’ve uncovered with a little support. Imagine what would have remained secret if this journalist had not been able to write at all.
There are places where freedom of the press does not exist at all, and it would be wrong to discuss what we could become without acknowledging those countries’ current struggles.
An example of a place where the press is currently censored is North Korea. In North Korea, all press is controlled by the government. The country’s poverty and famines are never acknowledged which means that they can never be addressed or fixed. Another key example of a country without freedom of the press is Burma, where all newspapers must undergo government prior review before print, meaning that reporters are unable to publish negative articles. In countries that don’t protect freedom of the press, the government is free to run entirely unchecked and little change is possible. Realistically, it would take a long time for our country’s free press to resemble those of North Korea or Burma, however these countries provide sobering examples of the danger that the Trump Administration and our general culture poses.
So, we understand this anti-media movement is dangerous, but it might seem like the government already has laws in place protecting the press. For example, we already have precedents protecting media organizations from prior review, as proven in the 1931 Supreme Court Case Near v. Minnesota. With laws like these and the first amendment already in place, it some believe there is nothing more citizens can do. That is surprisingly incorrect.
The press relies on some legal protections, but also on non legal safeguards, such as the institutional media’s financial strength, the good will of the public, a mutually dependent relationship with government officials, sympathetic judges, and political norms. Many of these safeguards have weakened. Newspapers are going bankrupt, the public has alternate sources of information, government officials no longer need the media to communicate with the citizens, lower courts seem more distrustful of reporters, and president Trump seems set on reversing political traditions. So, it is clear that citizens will have to step in. “Like so much of our democracy, the freedom of the press is only as strong as we, the public, demand it to be,” New York Times contributors and law professors Ronnell Andersen Jones and Soja R. West wrote.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio created an online pamphlet describing what average citizens can do to help protect and strengthen the first amendment. Some actions were as simple as actively exercising our own rights to freedom of speech, reading a banned book, or having conversations with people with different beliefs. Others include writing letters to local newspapers and legislation, supporting bills to protect our rights, submitting FOI [Freedom of Information] Acts to become more informed, or creating new, independent content. Craig Aaron, the president of the U.S advocacy group Free Press, advised ordinary citizens and journalists alike to, “stand up for those asking President Trump hard questions. Show solidarity with everyone committing acts of journalism even if they don't have fancy credentials. Get a good lawyer on speed dial. And encrypt everything.”
Without the freedom of the press granted to us in the first amendment, the United States would not be able to function as it is now. The effects this administration could have on the institutionalized media will impact everyone.
My father is probably going to continue criticizing my reporting abilities, and that’s alright. I would never advocate for someone to lose all skepticism when it comes to the media. However, it’s important to recognize that we as a public do not turn our backs entirely on the press.
The Huffington Post’s new slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” provides a perfect explanation. Darkness falls when citizens give up on independent sources, and if we don’t work to escape that shadow, our democracy will truly be in danger.