By Marion Filler
Is the press in trouble? Is it a purveyor of “fake news”? An “enemy of the people”?
Defending Democracy, the second of three talks presented by the grassroots nonprofit NJ 11th for Change, this week examined the troubling issues of an Administration that attacks the press and encourages its supporters to do the same.
Julie Burstein, Peabody Award-winning radio producer and creator of WNYC’s Studio 360, moderated a panel of three prominent journalists before a packed house at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Montclair on Wednesday night.
The audience heard from Jonathan Alter, an analyst at NBC and MSNBC and columnist for the Daily Beast, whose 28-year career also includes stints at Newsweek, the New York Times and the Washington Post.
He was joined by Tara George, an associate professor of journalism at Montclair State University and former reporter for the New York Daily News; and Joel Simon, author and executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit that promotes press freedom worldwide.
Burstein began by reading the First Amendment of the Constitution and noting the free press guarantee made by the founding fathers.
“I kind of wish that was read at the beginning of every meeting of the White House,” she said.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Thomas Jefferson especially understood the importance of a free press, Alter said.
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” Jefferson famously wrote.
But political climates change.
When confronted by rumors that his slave Sally Hemings was his mistress, Jefferson said: “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”
‘EVERYTHING ELSE IS B.S.’
Jefferson’s reversals can sound a lot like Donald Trump, said George, who recalled Trump’s routine encounters with the Daily News in the past.
“He would just call up and get himself on the front page,” she said.
Reporters were invited to Trump events, free food and drink included. All publicity was good for business. His divorces were front-page news. “It seems strange how the media is responsible for the creation of this all,” George said.
Did the media give Trump an easy ride to the White House? Alter thinks so.
“Generally speaking, before the election, the media did not do a good job on Trump. Their questions were not tough. There was always the threat that if you asked a tough question, you would not be let in again.” Trump made this clear before interviews, Alter said.
“Trump understood how to use that access thing. He still does. No one has noticed that he hasn’t had a press conference since becoming President. We haven’t had that experience since Herbert Hoover,” Alter said.
He garnered the loudest applause of the evening with a frank declaration.
“I’ll say it till I’m blue in the face: Our first obligation is not to be balanced. It is not to suck up to our leaders. Truth derived from facts. That’s it. Everything else is B.S.,” Alter said.
‘THE NORM IS BEING ERODED’
Journalists everywhere are facing tough obstacles. Simon asserted journalists are being imprisoned with increasing frequency worldwide, and “their number has increased quite dramatically since Trump took office.”
“The data shows that one of the most dangerous places for journalists is covering demonstrations and protests,” Simon said. Police are noticeably more aggressive towards the media under the Trump Administration, he said.
Hostility toward the press is nothing new, and leaks have frustrated many presidents.
Simon described how the Obama Administration heightened enforcement of the 1917 Espionage Act that criminalizes the publication of classified information. It prompted the Department of Justice to issue guidelines limiting the circumstances under which subpoenaed journalists could protect their sources.
In his confirmation hearings, Attorney General Jeff Sessions then “indicated he did not feel bound by those guidelines” and he now is aggressively pursuing dozens of leaks, Simon said.
Rhetoric from the White House is not particularly alarming to George, however.
“It’s pushing us to be more left and more open about our politics. I don’t see anything near what’s going on in the rest of the world. Essentially, the press is still free,” she said.
China, by comparison, demonstrates how a government with tremendous resources and political will can control massive amounts of information at the state level. It has increasingly inspired other governments around the world to do the same.
Simon advised speaking out when valued principals are threatened. Referring to egregious misstatements and outright lies by Trump, Alter said: “We can’t just ignore the President. The trick is to not normalize it. Mainstream media’s response should be that this is not the norm. The norm is being eroded.”
‘THE BURDEN IS ON US’
The panel had several suggestions on how Americans could evaluate the accuracy of news:
- Go to reputable sources; there are lots of very smart anchors, so follow them.
- Don’t rely on rumors. When in doubt, do a Google search and comb through the results.
- Scrap the idea that news should be free. “It is unpatriotic not to pay for information,” said Alter. “Vote with your wallet.”
The iPhone, “a much reviled device,” makes it easier to consume news, “but the burden is on all of us to recognize the importance of good questions and good writing,” George said.
The panel lamented the disappearance of local newspapers that were able to intimately connect with readers. They are being replace by online outlets that offer immediacy without verification. It shouldn’t take long to spot which ones are accurate, and those are the ones to follow, the speakers said.
They said they get their news from the New York Times, Associated Press feeds, the New Yorker Magazine, the Guardian, NPR and WNYC.