Local news outlets leading the campaign show why Americans should defend a free press amid attempts to discredit journalists
Today, more than 300 newspapers published editorials against the current administration’s continuous stream of invective against the news media. The editorials come on the heels of an uptick in the president’s rhetoric, including a tweet this Sunday saying the media “purposely cause great division & distrust. They can also cause War! They are very dangerous & sick!”
“We are not the enemy of the people,” said Marjorie Pritchard, the deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Globe and the organizer of the campaign. “The impact of Trump’s assault on journalism looks different in Boise than it does in Boston. Our words will differ. But at least we can agree that such attacks are alarming.”
It’s worth noting, as Pritchard alludes to above, that most of the news outlets raising the alarm today are local papers. This is relevant for a couple of reasons.
First, these are the papers that have the most to lose. Recent polling by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is sobering in terms of public approval of the press. But the one area of hope is that most people still trust their local news. According to the latest Gallup/Knight Foundation Survey on Trust, Media and Democracy, 54 percent of Americans have a lot or a fair amount of confidence that their local newspaper is providing mostly accurate and balanced news.
Public trust in the press as a whole is unfortunately around the same level of Congress, which is to say abysmal, but most Americans really do put stock in the reporters they read, see or hear every day. As such, the president’s continued rhetorical attacks on the media threaten to erode that trust. Local papers are very much in the crosshairs.
The second reason this should resonate is that things are about as bad in terms of press-government relations as they’ve been since the social upheaval during the Nixon administration.
It’s worth remembering that the real threat during those times, with the important exception of the Pentagon Papers case, wasn’t the president wielding the profound levers of his power to chill critical coverage (to be sure, President Nixon did try, particularly through the antitrust laws). The government overreach that, for instance, led to the creation of the Reporters Committee was acutely local.
A band of concerned journalists founded the Reporters Committee in 1970 following an unprecedented wave of government attempts to force journalists to give up their confidential sources. Challenges to those subpoenas wound their way up to the Supreme Court and resulted in the Branzburg v. Hayes case. That case failed to find a clear-cut reporters “privilege” that would protect journalists from having to name their sources, but did hint that such a privilege could be found in individual cases. And it involved three local reporters.
The Branzburg of the case was a Louisville Courier-Journal reporter who had written a series of stories about drug activity in Jefferson County, quoting anonymous sources who said they were talking to the press to embarrass the police. The police subpoenaed Branzburg in an attempt to find out who had put egg on their face.
The second case in Branzburg (the Supreme Court lumped three similar cases together) involved one Paul Pappas, a television reporter and cameraman for a New Bedford, Massachusetts, station who had been granted access to Black Panther headquarters before an anticipated police raid that never happened. Though he never broadcast a story, he received a subpoena two months later that demanded he testify as to what he heard and saw.
Finally, the third case came after federal authorities tried to force Earl Caldwell to testify about his confidential sources. Caldwell, an African-American reporter for The New York Times, was assigned to San Francisco to report on the Black Panthers who, in part because of the FBI’s impersonation of journalists, had become deeply distrustful of journalists. Caldwell, by assuring sources of confidentiality, managed to win back that trust and wrote a series of important stories on the Black Panthers.
This history demonstrates the stakes for local news today. The constant drumbeat of delegitimization by President Trump threatens to erode the public trust in news generally and in local news specifically, which could grease the skids for real government overreach along the lines of what we saw in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Accordingly, there’s value in these local papers sticking up for themselves, and the simple fact that they’ve done so demonstrates the need to defend a free press in a time that feels as uncertain as the tumult of that era.