Is the Press the Enemy of the People, Or the People’s Best Friend?

“The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” – President Donald Trump, Feb. 17, 2017.

“The press is your enemy.” – President Richard Nixon to Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Feb. 27, 1971.

When Donald Trump tweeted in February that journalists are “the enemy of the American people,” a charge he repeated a week later at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), it was hardly his first attack on news media. Campaigning in arenas around the country in 2016, Trump used words like “dishonest” and “disgusting” while pointing an accusing finger at the press corps, who were always cordoned off in a corner like refugees. On cue, his supporters would turn and hurl epithets at the men and women with notepads and cameras doing their jobs - keeping the public informed.

According to a story on CPAC by USA Today White House reporter David Jackson, President Trump again called serious journalists purveyors of “fake news,” and declared that “reporters should not be allowed to use anonymous sources, and ‘we're going to do something about it.’” Trump was not specific, as he is often not specific, about what that “something” might be. Jackson noted in his piece that, “Less than two hours before Trump criticized the use of anonymous sources and said all sources should be named, an administration official provided a briefing on condition he not be identified.”

My intention in this essay is not to catalogue the hypocrisies and falsehoods that emanate from Trump and his consigliere Steve Bannon, formerly of sensationalist site Breitbart. Many reporters on the national stage, including Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith of Republican-friendly Fox News, have taken Trump and his spokespeople to task for prevarication and hyperbolic comments that cross the line, so I’ll leave that sort of pushback to them.

As a former newspaperman turned journalism professor, my aim is more personal. Trump and company not only regularly insult numerous hardworking professional journalists with their barbs, but by association their bile extends to my hardworking journalism students who aspire to be professionals.

Journalism is a noble calling

I teach a class called “Journalism in a Free Society,” and always tell students that journalism, when practiced properly, is a noble calling. The future reporters who pass through my institution, Elon University, know it’s better to be right than to be first, even though digital age journalism demands speed.

Of course, mistakes are made. News people aren’t perfect. When we do err, we own up to it and issue a correction.

Actually, Trump is correct when he says that what sometimes passes for news is fake. I recently had lunch with a student who voted for Trump. A very bright and friendly guy, he spoke passionately about why he couldn’t support Hillary Clinton, and repeated a false story making the rounds during the 2016 campaign about Clinton’s alleged brain surgery. He said he had heard about this nonexistent medical procedure and her poor health from “the media.”

A few clicks on my phone easily disproved this fabrication, but he kept insisting the story was true. So yes, Mr. President, “fake news,” this oxymoron, exists, but not in legitimate journalism organizations. This is why one should be cautious about what one retweets.

The amorphous term “the media,” by the way, can refer to anything from an episode of Judge Judy, to your earbuds, to a podcast, to the film Moonlight, to a transistor radio. As Jon Marshall of Northwestern University’s Medill School pointed out in The Atlantic, “[Richard] Nixon was the first president to regularly refer to reporters as ‘the media,’ a more ominous sounding term than ‘the press.’”

When we speak of “news media” or “the press,” we’re talking about dedicated people whose job it is to seek truth and report it.

My classes, like those of all other journalism professors I know, go beyond technical skills, grammar, organization, and Associated Press style. We also teach ethics, empathy, honesty, fact checking, and integrity. Students learn to ask tough questions and dig for answers. To become good storytellers and public watchdogs, they are held to vigorous standards.

Through networking and internships, journalism students interact with industry professionals throughout their college careers. These pros, many at the top rungs of the ladder, are always eager to pass on their deep knowledge and solid work ethic to the next generation. Our students work for well-known news outlets vilified by the president: CBS News; ABC News; NBC News; The New York Times; The Washington Post; CNN; and many others. They also work for local television news stations and newspapers, serving their communities.

I am Facebook friends with many current and former students, and I recently posted a request for graduates of our program to share news stories with me they have written, produced, or taken part in that make them particularly proud of what they do for a living. The response was immediate, as they are smarting from the sting of unwarranted criticism from the president.

Below is a small sample of excellent public service reporting done by a new generation of journalists, accompanied by their own commentary.

Liz Palka, reporter and storyteller, most recently with WAVY-TV in Norfolk, Virginia:

“What Trump doesn't understand is that we, the media, represent the people. We ARE the people. I consider that to be at the core of what I do as a journalist. And in our quest to represent the people, our job is to hold the powerful accountable. When Trump decides to shut out members of the media from a press conference, he is shutting out the people he is supposed to represent. But, he won't stop us from holding him accountable.

“This [story] is just one example where viewers in Hampton, VA called us out of fear that they wouldn't get paid for work at a failing restaurant. They received their pay checks the day after my story aired.

“This mother had a strong message for the parents of the girl who killed her daughter.

“I once had a 7-8-year-old boy come up to me while I was covering a shooting in Newport News. Turns out the victim was his father. And as he told me, ‘I know who shot him!’ There was no doubt in my mind that he did know. But, there is a fear in the community about ‘snitching’ to the police. This mother didn't have that fear.

“I originally interviewed her the night her son was stabbed and killed. And I kept in touch with her for months; probably until I left WAVY in summer 2016. She heard who was responsible for her son's death through social media and other gossip. And she went to the police every time she learned something new. She called them, and me, constantly. There is no doubt in my mind she is the reason why her son's killer was captured months later – and why he will spend at least 20 years behind bars. I was glad I was one of the first calls she made when the arrest happened.

“My stories are unique to a local news reporter. I doubt a network correspondent has the chance to work as closely with the people watching them. But each and every day they go to work, I know they are thinking of those people when they need to do a tough story or ask a tough question.”

Naima Abdulahi, Visual Storyteller, 11 Alive News, Atlanta

Shermantown is a small African-American neighborhood in Stone Mountain, Ga. The historic community served as a backdrop for many historic events, including the civil rights movement & Klan revival. Longtime residents are now worried their past may soon be forgotten. Naima brought this story to light in this sensitive report.

Kassondra Cloos, assistant editor of SNEWS, an outdoor business news site:

“In November, 2015, I was part of the team The New York Times sent to cover the mass shooting at the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs. I was a contributing reporter and didn't have a byline, but I'm still proud to have been on this team. It gave me incredible insight into how the ‘mainstream’ media covers tragedies, and I got a close look at the process for confirming details and the rigorous process for reporting, fully, what happens before and after a mass shooting …

“They sent me because I had been a crime reporter in Colorado Springs, and I knew the authorities. And they flew out a NYC-based reporter who grew up in Colorado Springs and had been a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter there, because he deeply understood the religious roots of the community and how those feelings added a level of complexity to a tragic situation.

“There are no shortcuts to excellence, and The Times cuts no corners. I can say this with confidence now, especially as my boyfriend is a regular freelancer for them and I see what lengths they take to get good photos. I've especially enjoyed seeing Al’s photos [Al Drago is another Elon University graduate who is a contract photographer for The New York Times] on so many front pages … I think today, more than ever, we can't understate the importance of photojournalism.

“Here's one of those stories from the Planned Parenthood shooting.

“I'm also really proud of the work I did regarding racial bias cases in Colorado Springs. I dug deep into the story of Ryan Brown, who was a passenger in his own car while his younger brother was pulled over without explanation … My story caught the attention of the ACLU, which defended Brown and got his case dismissed (he was ticketed for resisting and interfering with a public official) ...

“I could share many more examples... what newspaper jobs lack in pay, benefits, and work-life balance, they often (somewhat) make up for in knowing that you're doing a public service, and making a difference.

“Also, on another note, I have been personally branded as a sort of public enemy. In January 2015, I reported on the attempted bombing of the Colorado Springs NAACP. A few white supremacy websites claimed I, and the rest of the Gazette, made the whole story up, and started an email campaign to get us to retract the story. I'm proud that we stood firm on our work.”

Ethan Smith, Crime Reporter, Goldsboro, NC News-Argus

“I saw your Facebook status and wanted to send you this series of articles covering the federal trial of local superior court judge Arnold O. Jones II for bribery and corruption. I am sending this to you not only because I'm proud of being trusted to cover such a high-profile trial at 24, but also because I was the only reporter at the trial.

“Despite the story reaching the News and Observer and The Washington Post, I was the only reporter to sit in the benches of the court room day in, day out and cover this. This, I believe, touches on why the press is not an enemy of the American people.

“One other reporter from Lawyer's Weekly showed up for the opening and closing arguments, and that was it. If I had not attended the trial and hunkered down in Wilmington for a week, the public would be in the dark about the events that unfolded during this trial, and all they would know about is the charges against the judge and his subsequent

conviction. There would have been nobody to share the details of the actions of the attorneys, reactions of the family, what evidence was and was not allowed and why that mattered, all while simultaneously ensuring the court treated him fairly (they did).

“These things are important because they educate people on nuances and inner-workings so they can develop a greater understanding of what happened, instead of just snatching their attention for five minutes for the big headlines.”

Brian Mezerski, Broadcast & Digital Multimedia, ABC News, New York

“Although Diane [Sawyer’s] team did the reporting on this hour of course, I found it important to work on some digital storytelling and elements surrounding this hour telling the harsh reality Americans are facing day to day, striving to stay middle class and pay the bills.

“I also enjoyed helping families, being on their side, while working on these reports...helping to search & reunite lost family members across the country.”

Brian Anderson, Senior Journalism Major at Elon University, Class of 2017

Brian is the only journalist on this list who is still a student at Elon as I write this essay. Brian covered several Trump rallies during the 2016 campaign, and experienced what every other working reporter had to endure. He had the opportunity to interview candidate Trump for about 10 minutes backstage at a campaign event. Below are his observations and a link to a story he published in the Raleigh, NC, News & Observer as an intern there.

On Trump’s Rallies:

"Donald Trump's rallies were wild experiences. You never knew what to expect from Trump or his supporters, but you always knew it was going to be a lively atmosphere. I saw a photographer get taken to the ground and escorted out of the venue by security. I saw a protester sucker punched by a Trump supporter while being removed from the crowd. I even saw a black Trump supporter get mistaken as a protester and get removed from a rally. It was often during the post-rally protests when I felt most uncomfortable as a reporter. I recall interviewing a protester after one of Trump's rallies in Greensboro while a law enforcement official had a pepper spray gun in his hand near my general direction."

On Interviewing Donald Trump:

"When I interviewed Donald Trump, who was the Republican nominee at the time, I expected him to be more aggressive and hostile. While it was difficult at times to get him to directly answer my questions, he was very polite and courteous. I'm not sure if this was because I was working for a print and online outlet rather than a television station. Either way, it was a memorable experience I will remember for a long time. How many college students can say they had a one-on-one interview with a person who ultimately became the president of the United States?"

Epilogue

The press is the only profession whose protection is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Every president since George Washington has been criticized by journalists, and it’s a sure bet none of them cared for it.

John Adams, whose presidency followed that of Washington, took the most drastic step of retaliation, signing the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The Sedition Act, in part, made it a crime for American citizens to "print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous, and malicious writing" about the government.

Thomas Jefferson defeated Adams in a bitter presidential race, and let the Alien and Sedition Acts expire. Many are aware of Jefferson’s grand statement about the press: “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.” Yet, when papers of the era began to criticize him, he wrote in a letter, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.”

“Thomas Jefferson was as irritated with newspaper coverage as any public figure of his era,” according to Ken Paulsen, president of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center. Paulsen told Lindsey Bever of The Washington Post that, “For all the talk of media bias today, it can’t compare to the overt partisanship and personal attacks appearing in papers in our nation’s early years. But Jefferson also knew that our democracy could only flourish with a free press that would keep an eye on people in power and help protect our freedoms.

“He understood that press coverage comes and goes, but freedom of the press must endure.”

One wonders if President Donald Trump understands that principle.

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