“Is there any bias?” This is the first question I ask my dad when I slap my school newspaper into his hands the second he gets home from work. My dad is that guy who gets all his news from Fox, argues intensely with family members on Facebook, and boycotts anything he perceives as having 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 extreme, they aren’t unique. He’s actually part of a larger movement in our society: losing trust in traditional news sources. According to the Pew Research Center, only two in ten adults trust traditional media sources, and 74 percent of adults believe that the media is biased. This didn’t happen overnight, but it is putting our country at risk. The press keeps the government in check, and its freedom is only protected by citizen enforcement. So the American people have to make an effort to protect the First Amendment, since the freedom of the press is in danger in our current political climate.
It is hard to ignore President Trump’s unprecedented disregard for the media. He used the term “fake news” before he was even elected in order to sow distrust in the media. Press Secretary Sean Spicer has at times been combative in press conferences, arguing with and verbally attacking 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 our commander in chief attacking the media so vigorously, it makes sense that citizens might begin to lose trust in it as well.
Recently, the Trump administration has expressed displeasure with journalists using anonymous sources in their stories, stating that journalists “shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name. Let their name be put out there.”
These attacks on journalistic practices are not new. The Obama administration often attempted to force reporters to name their anonymous sources. The Justice Department and the FBI spied on reporters by monitoring their phone records and suggested a Fox News reporter was a co-conspirator in a criminal case. “Obama has laid all the groundwork Trump needs for an unprecedented crackdown on the press,” Trevor Timm, executive director of the nonprofit Freedom of the Press Foundation, told The New York Times. Dana Priest, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post, commented, “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.” It wasn’t just Trump alone who created this new culture of distrusting and shaming the press.
Why is this a danger to our democracy? It’s the job of the press to be a watchdog and expose injustices in government. Without them, there is nothing stopping a government from hurting its citizens. “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,” writes Huffington Post contributor Jason Fuller.
Some might argue that the media deserve to be criticized for the biased, “fake” news that President Trump has called out. 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. Ask the citizens of North Korea or Burma how that’s working out for them.
In North Korea, all press is controlled by the government. The country’s extreme poverty and resulting famines are never acknowledged, which means that they can never be addressed or fixed. In Burma all newspapers must undergo government review before being printed, so reporters cannot publish critical articles. In countries that don’t protect freedom of the press, the government is free to run entirely unchecked; opposition and resistance are quashed. These countries provide sobering reminders of the value of free press.
But don’t we have laws protecting the press? Sure, for example, we 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, many people believe that the press is safeguarded and there is nothing more we citizens need 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 in recent years. Newspapers are struggling to stay afloat, the public is consuming more news from questionable sources on social media, government officials no longer need the media to communicate with citizens, the lower courts seem more distrustful of reporters, and President Trump appears set on reversing political traditions. “Like so much of our democracy, the freedom of the press is only as strong as we, the public, demand it to be,” The New York Times contributors and law professors Ronnell Andersen Jones and Soja R. West wrote. It is clear that citizens must take action.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio describes what citizens can do to help protect and strengthen the First Amendment. Some actions are as simple as actively exercising our own rights to freedom of speech, reading a controversial book, or having conversations with people with different beliefs. Others include writing letters to local newspapers and legislators, supporting bills to protect our rights, submitting Freedom of Information Act requests to become more informed, or creating new, independent content.
“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,” Craig Aaron, president of the U.S. advocacy group Free Press, advises citizens and journalists alike.
Without the freedom of the press granted to us in the First Amendment, the United States would not be able to function as it does 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 all right. I would never advocate for anyone to lose all skepticism when it comes to the media. However, it’s important to recognize that we as a public must not turn our backs on the press. Instead we must work to hold media accountable, as its journalists hold our government accountable.
The Washington Post’s new slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” provides a perfect explanation. Darkness falls when citizens give up on independent journalism, and if we don’t work against that threat, our democracy will truly be jeopardized.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.