Trump's Media Attacks Undercut Press Freedom

Written by Alex Brown, Nadja Linke, and Tiger Li, Common Cause interns, on October 18, 2017


President Trump’s repeated attacks on journalists and what he calls “fake news” are undermining press freedom at a time when newspapers and broadcasters already are struggling with declining subscription and advertising revenues, a panel of reporters, legal experts and journalism scholars agreed last week.

Trump’s attacks also are contributing to a long term decline in public trust for the media, which reached a record low in 2016, the panelists told a Common Cause-sponsored forum, In Pursuit of an Informed Citizenry: Freedom of the Press in the Trump Era, at the National Press Club. You can watch the full program, which lasted about 90 minutes, below, and/or read our summary below that.

In a June 2017 survey, about 46% of Democrats said they trust newspapers compared to just 13% of Republicans; the partisan difference may be explained at least in part as a reaction to Trump’s assertion that the media are "the enemy of the people."

Unfortunately, Trump’s rhetoric is not the only challenge facing American journalism. The Trump administration recently threatened to delicense NBC due to the network’s reports -- disputed  by the White House -- that the president intends to increase the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal size and that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson referred to Trump as a “moron.”

Former FCC commissioner Michael Copps and Alicia Shepard, a professor of journalism ethics at the University of Arkansas, noted that while the broadcast networks aren’t licensed (local stations are) such threats have a noticeable chilling effect on their reporting.  

Because media are unable to risk potentially costly litigation, publishers may avoid politically risky subject matters, the pair agreed. Reductions in coverage can lead to reduced transparency and accountability, and ultimately a less responsive government, they said.

Other speakers noted that lawsuits like the  invasion-of-privacy case between Gawker Media and Hulk Hogan demonstrate the financial risks that wealthy individuals pose to media that cannot afford to pay hefty damage awards. Gawker went out of business after a court awarded Hogan $140 million in damages over its publication of a sex tape featuring the wrestler.

While the precise circumstances surrounding the Gawker case are uncommon, Mary-Rose Papandrea, a distinguished professor at the University of North Carolina Law School, noted that the lawsuit had a chilling effect on reporters considering stories about the ultra-wealthy.

Kathy Kiely, a longtime Washington journalist now lecturing at the University of New Hampshire, argued that while Trump’s rhetoric and the possibility of defamation lawsuits threaten substantive journalism, the field also is grappling with the effects of consolidation under a few corporate umbrellas and an emphasis on profits over quality content.

While a few news outlets, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, are growing, most newspapers and local broadcasters are struggling to survive as readers and viewers turn to the internet for news and information. The decline of commercial journalism has sparked the development on nonprofit alternatives like ProPublica, which are supported by  contributions from foundations and wealthy individuals.

However, the barriers between local journalists and non-commercial journalism remain high.  

Alicia Shepard, a former ombudsman for NPR news, argued that journalists need to find ways to break away from the demands of profit-motivated owners and the mass appeal of “click-bait” or “reality TV-style” stories.    

Finding ways to be profitable is important, the panel agreed, but journalism exists to support an informed citizenry. This necessitates looking beyond ad-revenues and taking regulatory approaches to consolidation, as well as considering public financing.  

Panelists urged the public to subscribe to local newspapers to better ensure a wider range of news coverage. “Sometimes the  stories people work hardest on get the least clicks, said Guardian reporter Sabrina Siddiqui.

Kiely said she sees low news-literacy among her students and emphasized the need for impartial but accurate instruction on news consumption.  She likened reforming what we read to changing our diets:  “We learned to eat less meat over time, to cut out the Doritos” and we can do the same with our media diets, she suggested.

Kiely said that while Trump’s rhetoric represents a threat to substantive journalism, the field needs to react to the trends of consolidation and commercialization.  Journalism is important, even if not always lucrative, she and other panelists asserted. That means publishers, broadcasters and public policy makers must look at solutions -- like public financing -- that go beyond trying to boost ad-revenues and regulating consolidation.

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Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Media and Democracy

Tags: Media Monopolization

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