By Thom Fladung/Hennes Communications
Spurred by The Boston Globe, more than 300 newspaper editorial boards answered the call to stage a coordinated effort to publish editorials on the same day, August 16, defending the role of a free press and, in many cases, decrying President Trump’s attacks on the news media.
“We are not the enemy of the people,” said Marjorie Pritchard, the Globe’s deputy managing editor for the editorial page.
That unprecedented effort also comes amid a burgeoning national debate about press freedom and the role of the press in a democracy. According to a recent Ipsos poll of 1,003 adults, 85 percent of those polled agreed that a free press is essential to American democracy. In the same poll, though, 29 percent of all respondents and 48 percent of Republicans agreed that “the news media is the enemy of the American people” and 23 percent of Republicans agreed that “President Trump should close down mainstream news outlets, like CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times.”
Faced with that conundrum – almost everyone wants a free press but a fair number of people seem to be saying they don’t want this free press – the newspapers made their case.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s editorial board offered context: “Let’s start with a fundamental truth: It is and has always been in the interests of the powerful to dismiss and discredit those who could prove a check on their power.”
The Akron Beacon Journal/Ohio.com editorial board offered explanation: “For our part, newspapers and other media hardly are flawless. We make mistakes, and seek to correct them. Yet recall the revolutionary idea the founders had in mind when they declared that ‘Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.’ Power no longer resided in the monarch. It belongs to the people. The press thus received extraordinary protection because of its capacity to inform readers and check the powerful.”
And the New York Times editorial said: “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.”
To be sure, not every newspaper fell in line on August 16. The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and The Plain Dealer/cleveland.com were among those that declined to participate.
Cleveland.com published the opinions of individual editorial board members and said that, as a board: “The consensus of the Editorial Board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer is that the Globe’s effort, while well-intentioned, is not the ideal way to respond to the administration’s criticism, so we are not participating.”
What’s a reader to do? Like the vast majority of Americans, embrace a free press fervently. And then be a tough reader. Question news stories as aggressively as you should hope the journalists aggressively question sources when reporting and writing the stories.
Here’s how Detroit Free Press editorial page editor Brian Dickerson (disclaimer: a colleague and old friend of mine) put it:
“When President Trump asserts that the average journalist lies as casually, habitually, and unscrupulously as he himself does, he is up to something more malignant than trolling his critics in the press. Any diminution of my profession’s reputation is mere collateral damage in this campaign, whose real intent is to undermine public confidence in any version of events except Trump’s own.
“This is not a harbinger of authoritarianism; this is its ugly, deceitful face.
“I would be no kind of journalist if I urged you to accept any of this on faith. We are not in the business of blind trust. Quite the opposite.
“We invite you to consider what we report with the journalist’s own healthy skepticism: Ask questions. Consult multiple sources. Demand evidence. Revisit expectations and cherished assumptions frequently to see whether they still hold up in the face of newly discovered facts.”
And to that I would add: Ask yourselves the last time a politician urged you to treat his or her words with that same healthy skepticism.
Thom Fladung, managing partner at Hennes Communications, worked in newspaper newsrooms for 33 years, including serving as managing editor of The Plain Dealer, the Akron Beacon Journal, the Detroit Free Press and as editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. But don’t take his word for it. Check it out.