Newspapers Nationwide Send Message: A Free Press Needs You

A still-life photo of a New York Times editorial on the free press on Aug. 16, 2018. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
A photo of the New York Times editorial on the free press on Aug. 16, 2018. Journalism professor Mike Stanton discusses an initiative led by the Boston Globe in which more than 350 newspapers around the nation published editorials promoting freedom of the press. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

The Boston Globe collaborated with more than 350 newspapers around the nation on today’s publication of editorials promoting freedom of the press, in direct response to President Trump’s attacks on the media. UConn Today spoke with Mike Stanton, associate professor of journalism and a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, about the effort.

Q. There has been a battle between government officials and the press from the early days of the nation. This is not something that just popped up recently. What is new with politicians trying to manipulate or influence the press?

Defending the First Amendment is not collusion. It’s democracy. — Mike Stanton

A. There’s always been a tension between the press and politicians, and there should be. That’s why we have a First Amendment. The press is kind of the outside representative of the people to question our leaders and hold them accountable and have a transparent country. We’ve always seen that. In colonial times Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were the primary ideological adversaries, each with their own newspaper. They would go to war with each other, printing lies, half-truths, and vicious attacks. It would get personal and petty.

Now, what we’ve seen is the amplification of that with social media. The public has a more difficult time separating fact from fiction; they kind of determine their facts based on their ideology, and that’s dangerous for everyone. Jefferson said, “Were it left for me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government I would prefer the latter.” I think the problem we have today is that we are at risk of having government without the newspapers because journalism is struggling. The traditional model is failing, and where this really hits home is in the smaller newspapers. Those struggles are not really about partisanship. Local newspapers are about connecting your community and informing the people who live there about what’s going on in their schools, police department, and town council.

Q. We’ve started to see more pushback by the White House press corps against President Trump’s attacks on the media, with a Fox News reporter supporting an NBC News reporter trying to ask questions during a news conference.

A. We’ve been seeing that a lot more media of all perceived stripes are standing together a bit more to allow follow-up questions. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to question this administration. It’s never been easy, but there are few press briefings. Donald Trump is not making himself available to answer tough questions. He prefers to play it before friendly media on Fox, or at these rallies of his supporters that he likes to whip up with his rhetoric.

Q. The Washington Post, among others, has been tracking the false and misleading statements made by the president. About a third of them are on economic issues, trade deals, and jobs, which he campaigned on, and increasingly on the Russia investigation. Besides this editorial position coming from the leadership of the papers, what can the media do to push back on this problem?

A. Call truth to power. That’s what journalists have historically done and that’s what we need to do today more than ever. That’s why we’re in this situation. Isn’t it sad that newspapers are being under attack for wanting to print editorials defending the importance of a free press? I’ve heard Trump’s supporters accuse the media of collusion – and that word is being thrown around loosely and erroneously as fake news. Collusion is something sinister for a nefarious purpose. Defending the First Amendment is not collusion. It’s democracy. I think it’s important to call truth to power. I think the reason Trump attacks the media is you shoot the messenger. Let’s not forget that the media was not a friend to Hillary Clinton; there was a lot of acrimony there. There was a lot of difficulty the press had with President Obama as well. This is not a partisan issue where reporters are out there telling readers what’s honestly happening.

Q. Beyond speaking truth to power, how can the media counter these attacks by the president?

A. People have to make the distinction between the editorial pages and the news columns. Whatever the editorial pages say about the importance of the First Amendment, which I agree with, reporters have to do their job, call out the facts, check things out; and if somebody in power, Republican or Democrat, says something wrong or misleading, you have to call them out on it. The press is just doing its job and needs to continue to do its job. I think more and more people are seeing that. Look at the coverage of what’s happening with the immigrant children being separated from their parents on the border. You can have whatever ideological bent you want on immigration, but those facts coming out are really starting to define the debate as opposed to the rhetoric. I think that’s a tribute to the importance of journalism.

Q. Recently there was a new study from Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy, ‘Assessing Local Journalism,’ which found there is much less local journalism available in newspapers now than ever before. They analyzed 16,000 news stories over seven days in 100 randomly sampled communities, finding no original or local news stories in some papers. Why is this a problem?

A. We’re struggling with news deserts, these small local towns. At a recent conference, I met the leader of a group called Report for America, modeled after Teach for America, a Peace Corps-like organization that is basically raising money to put reporters in these small places like Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, where communities just don’t have any coverage. It’s really not a matter whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat; it’s a matter of can we find out what’s going on in our communities and can we know what our elected officials are doing and if they’re doing right by the people? This is a real problem. While there have been strides for national news, groups like ProPublica have come along to fill the breach in the decline of traditional media. People are still trying to figure what to do about local news. There’s a lot fewer reporters in statehouses keeping an eye on state government. As we see with our national picture, what happens in state government is so important in determining voting rights, voting districts, gerrymandering, and a lot of important issues that play out on the national stage as well. There’s a real hunger for that news out there. I was at a conference for investigative reporters at the University of Missouri last week. It was 25 journalists of all different ages and affiliations from around the country. There was one young man I met, a few years out of college, working for a tiny paper in Carlsbad, New Mexico, and he loves it. He talks about how important it is for the local people to know what’s going on. There’s issues about fracking and toxic waste going on there. It’s really heartening to see that kind of idealism. He’s on a newspaper with two reporters and they’re going to hire a third. There is hope out there. There is that appetite for news that is so important.

Q. UConn philosophy professor Michael Lynch has described the deliberate spreading of a mixture of true and false stories to confuse the public as an ‘internet shell game.’ Now we have the Quinnipiac Poll on Aug. 13 showing that 51 percent of Republican respondents identified with the Trump quote: The media is the enemy of the people.

A. It’s heartening that the same Quinnipiac Poll said that overall, 65 percent believe the news media is an important part of our democracy and only 26 percent overall consider the media the enemy of the people. The other interesting poll that just came out, the Gallup-Knight Foundation Poll, found that 85 percent of Americans – and I don’t think it matters whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican – don’t think that web platforms like Facebook and Google are doing enough to stop the spread of fake news. They also want more transparency, and companies to be reined in. I think what that shows is all Americans are facing up to the dangers of fake news and the importance of what we teach our students here at UConn, [which is] to distinguish between fact and fiction. You read something online, don’t take it as gospel. Ask where you found out, how do you know that? Like we say, if your mother says she loves you, check it out. It’s not just important for future journalists, it’s important for future citizens, consumers of the news. It’s important for all of us.

Q. Where does the media go from this editorial campaign, knowing there will be a response from the White House?

A. I read one press critic questioning this concerted editorial campaign; that it would backfire and give Trump more ammunition to go on his attacks about collusion among the press. We’ll see what happens. I’m not naïve enough to think editorials change people’s minds. We live in silos where people have their opinions. I think [this is about] defending a free press and reminding people of the importance of the First Amendment and also putting it in local terms. One of the things the Boston Globe did when starting this concerted editorial campaign was to let each paper weigh in with its own local concerns and issues, so people can see it’s not about partisan politics. If you’re in rural Pennsylvania, central Los Angeles, Oregon, or Florida, people care about what’s happening around them translated into those local terms. Let people see that journalists are not enemies of the people, we are the people; we live among the people, work among the people, and have all the differences and diversity, flaws, and attributes any other person has.