W. Joseph Campbell

After the editorial-solidarity stunt: Why nothing changed in Trump-press war

In Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Washington Post on August 23, 2018 at 6:57 am

It’s been a week since the editorial voices of more than 300 U.S. newspapers collectively condemned President Donald Trump’s frequent rhetorical attacks on the press.

The one-off campaign was a preening and self-important stunt, coordinated by the Boston Globe and joined by the likes of the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer as well as many smaller titles. (Titles that boycotted the campaign included the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle.)

Not surprising, the solidarity demonstration passed without evident effect. Seven days after, it’s clear the campaign made little difference, as is usually the case with editorials. Trump is still a badgering narcissist, slamming the press for biases, real and perceived.

Not that anyone thought the solidarity stunt — or “spun-up nonsense,” as one boycotting newspaper called it — would make much difference. But it did make the press seem defensive, easily wounded, prone to group think, and eager to take refuge in eye-rolling platitudes. The editorials condemning Trump certainly oozed sanctimony; here’s a sample:

“A war on the press is a war on democracy,” declared the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“A free society can only function correctly if its citizens have timely access to information concerning its government’s dealings, and if representatives are held to acceptable standards,” intoned the Courier of Waterloo, Iowa.

“An independent and free media — and local news in particular — is our protection from tyranny and our guard against the oppression of those who would take advantage of us,” said the Duluth News Tribune.

“… a free press is fundamental to the continuation of our American experiment in democracy,” asserted the Dallas Morning News.

“A free press builds the foundation for democracy,” said the Tampa Bay Times. (More likely the reverse is true: Press freedom and media pluralism are effects, not conditions, of democratic governance.)

In any case, none of that chest-thumping had much chance of swaying popular opinions about the news media. Suspicions about the news media run deep, as a recent Gallup poll suggests: 62 percent of respondents said they believe bias lurks in news in print and on radio, and television.

The news media would do better to be more candid about their imperfections, limitations, and biases; to undertake more vigorously to get it right; to correct errors promptly and without chafing, to be less lop-sided, and less condescending, in their coverage.

Errors in reporting about Trump and his administration have been many, and have nearly all flown in the same direction, to the discredit of the president.

For nine years, Media Myth Alert has called attention to the publication and appearance of media myths — those well-known tales of great deeds that journalists love to tell about themselves. Media myths, when exposed to scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated. But as the content of Media Myth Alert make clears, these myths are still entrenched and still circulate in the news media.

Journalists ought to take themselves a bit less seriously: the performance journalism of CNN’s Jim Acosta, who has come off as the bully in questioning Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary, has been an embarrassment.

American journalists also would do well to understand more fully the history of media and of the abuses reporters and editors have confronted from time to time. Trump may be a bully, prone to raging hyperbole. But his administration is not jailing journalists. Or even following through on a campaign vow to loosen libel laws and facilitate litigation against the media.

Trump is no “unprecedented threat to the rights of journalists,” as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists declared in 2016.

His outbursts condemning the “fake news” media are hardly akin to the enforcement of the Sedition Act, which was passed 220 years ago and forbade “publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either House of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States.”

Several American journalists were accused and jailed during the administration of John Adams for violating the Sedition Act. Benjamin Franklin’s nephew, Benjamin Franklin Bache, whose Philadelphia Aurora was a vigorous critic of the administrations of Adams and his predecessor, George Washington, ran afoul of the law.

Bache was arrested in June 1798 and died of yellow fever two months later, before he could be tried.

Trump’s bluster is less consequential and less punitive to the news media than the surveillance tactics of Barack Obama’s administration, which turned to the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I era, to pursue leakers and threaten journalists.

As Julie Mason, a former White House correspondent, noted in an essay in Variety in April:

“Obama, who campaigned on a promise to protect government whistle-blowers, made greater use of the Espionage Act … than all other presidents combined.

“Obama’s Justice Department accessed the personal email of a Fox News reporter and surveilled the reporter’s parents and colleagues. They seized the home, work and mobile phone records of journalists at the Associated Press.”

The Obama administration also pressed James Risen of the New York Times to reveal confidential sources in a criminal leak investigation.

Risen wrote in the Times as Obama’s presidency neared its end:

“If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.I. to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama.”

Not surprisingly, the anti-Trump editorial-solidarity campaign made scant mention of Obama’s heavy-handed anti-press measures.

Critics of the solidarity stunt were right: The editorial outbursts last week lent Trump fresh ammunition to assail the news media as overtly aligned against him.

WJC

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