Friday, January 20, 2017

Journalists brace for Trump administration
The post below previews some of my presentation Tuesday night, Jan. 24 at 6:30 pm at the National Archives in Kansas City titled, First Amendment Under Fire: Global Challenges to Press Freedom. While I will discuss Trump, as I do below, I’ll also cover press freedom more broadly in the U.S. and the world, and analyze at length the impact of the erosion of trust in the news media. Hope to see you there.

The inauguration of President Trump has created palpable fear among many Americans, including women, LGBTQ individuals, and Obamacare recipients. But perhaps no single group has been as concerned with Trump’s ascension to power than journalists.

In October, the chairman of the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Sandra Mims Rowe, issued the following statement on behalf of the organization:

“Guaranteeing the free flow of information to citizens through a robust, independent press is essential to American democracy. For more than 200 years this founding principle has protected journalists in the United States and inspired those around the world, including brave journalists facing violence, censorship, and government repression.

Donald Trump, through his words and actions as a candidate for president of the United States, has consistently betrayed First Amendment values. On October 6, CPJ's board of directors passed a resolution declaring Trump an unprecedented threat to the rights of journalists and to CPJ's ability to advocate for press freedom around the world.” 

Specifically, CPJ and other journalism organizations see four Trump administration threats to free speech.

1. Insulting, vilifying, and thus marginalizing the press
One need look no further than Trump’s many direct attacks on journalists. He has regularly called them “dishonest”, “scum”, and “sleaze.” He has directed supporters at his rallies to threateningly jeer at journalists covering the rallies. This was also on display at Trump’s Jan. 11 pressconference where he labeled CNN and Buzzfeed “fake news."

On his first day in office, while speaking at the CIA, he said, "I have a running war with the media. They are the most dishonest human beings on earth."

The impact of this is a public more skeptical of media, and less likely to believe facts and fact-checking. A Rasumussen poll finds that that “just 29% of all Likely U.S. Voters trust media fact-checking of candidates’ comments. Sixty-two percent (62%) believe instead that news organizations skew the facts to help candidates they support.” 

2. Denying press credentials to media outlets
Trump’s campaign systematically denied press credentials to outlets that have covered him critically, including The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, Politico, The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Univision, and The Des Moines Register. (CPJ)

The impact is two-fold: making some journalists more reluctant to criticize the president, and restricting access to events and information that have traditionally been subject to public scrutiny.

3. Threats to tighten libel laws
According to CPJ, throughout his campaign, “Trump has routinely made vague proposals to limit basic elements of press and internet freedom. At a rally in February, Trump declared that if elected president he would ‘open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.’ In September, Trump tweeted: ‘My lawyers want to sue the failing @nytimes so badly for irresponsible intent. I said no (for now), but they are watching. Really disgusting.’ While some have suggested that these statements are rhetorical, we take Trump at his word. His intent and his disregard for the constitutional free press principle are clear.’”

Will this have a chilling effect on the media during the next four years?

4. Threat to remove press from the West Wing
According to, "Routine media access to the White House could be a thing of the past under Donald Trump's presidency, with top officials saying...that they're exploring more spacious options nearby. Vice President-elect Mike Pence cast the idea as a response to increased interest in the new administration, saying they’re ‘giving some consideration to finding a larger venue on the 18 acres in the White House complex to accommodate the extraordinary interest…’

The White House Correspondents’ Association board said last week it “will fight to keep the briefing room and West Wing access to senior administration officials open,” in a statement from association president Jeff Mason…“We object strenuously to any move that would shield the president and his advisers from the scrutiny of an on-site White House press corps,” Mason said. 

What can journalists and journalism organizations do to combat these threats?

In no small part, the answer lies in improving our work, and reestablishing our credibility with the public, which has a record-low 32% level of trust in media, according to a recent Gallup poll. It doesn't help when the media give its critics, including President Trump, ammunition, like when one report erroneously stated that the bust of Martin Luther King had been removed from the Oval Office.

One prescription for improving our work is peace journalism and its embrace of balance and objectivity; examining and reporting about solutions; giving voice to the voiceless; rejecting sensationalism; and giving non violent responses to conflict a proportionate voice.

The public can also buttress quality journalism by subscribing to their local newspaper or news websites, and by donating to not-for-profit public service journalism organizations like Propublica, PBS, and NPR. News consumers can also do their part by communicating their support for the first amendment to their elected representatives, especially during those times when anti-press appointees or judges are being considered for confirmation.

The worst nightmares of the journalism community don’t have to come to fruition. We must improve our profession, and, in so doing, begin to build both our lost credibility and our own wall of professionalism that will help shield us from capricious politicians.

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