Trump's attacks on the mainstream news media have not only energized them, but have prompted them to work together to plot a common strategy to preserve and expand their First Amendment rights and protections. National and local broadcasters should support this effort, providing money and speaking out.
Rally Round The First Amendment
Speaking at the NAB’s State Leadership Conference Tuesday, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) went after President Trump and his administration for their “unprecedented series” of attacks on the news media — attacks that culminated Feb. 17 with a tweet from the commander in chief calling “FAKE NEWS media” — namely the New York Times, NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN — the “enemy of the American people.”
“Turning reporters into enemies — not just adversaries, but enemies — is a strategy that strongmen use to silence critics and maintain power,” Durbin said after cataloging the Trump assaults. “Their goal is to discredit the messenger. That way, when there is bad news, or news that contradicts the official line, people won’t believe it.
“Soon enough, people start to lose faith … not just in the media, but in all of the institutions that hold a society together. They lose faith in the power of debate and elections to change anything. They become cynical and apathetic.”
The attacks have provoked a predictable public response from the targeted news media. Bring it on, they say. We are simply going to continue to do what we have always done, provide a check on the government by throwing as much light on its doings as we possibly can.
Rather than intimidate the media, the attacks have energized them and engendered waves of public support that can be clearly measured in “Trump bumps” to Nielsen ratings and paid subscriptions.
At the same time, the Trump thumps have provided an impetus for the news media to rally and redouble their collective efforts to preserve and perhaps expand their First Amendment rights. There is nothing like a hostile outside force in forging solidarity among the beleaguered.
On Jan. 17, representatives of more than 50 news organizations met in Washington to plot a common strategy for strengthening news media. It was organized by the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press and the American Society of News Editors and hosted by the Democracy Fund.
The journalists, lawyers and other media advocates discussed legal and legislative ways to insure access to government offices and information, protect whistle blowers from government retribution, protect themselves from frivolous libel suits and protect reporters from government harassment.
They also talked about the need to restore trust in the news media and floated ideas about how to do it.
I am happy to report that broadcasters were well represented at the “summit” by the Radio Television Digital News Association in the persons of Executive Director Mike Cavender and General Counsel Kathleen Kirby of the Wiley Rein law firm.
Cavender tells me to expect a full report from the organizers in the next week or two.
Whatever strategy emerges from the summit is just so much talk unless it wins the financial backing of newspapers, the national news networks and, yes, TV station groups. Legal defense funds, legislative initiatives and appeals to the public cost money.
It should go without saying that broadcasters need to support fully the RTDNA. In addition — and Cavender may hate me for saying this — but broadcasters should also consider supporting other worthy organizations like Investigative Reporters and Editors.
I’ve been arguing that stations should eschew on-air commentary, especially on hot partisan issues, figuring that there is enough opinion out there and that it will only serve to undermine trust in stations’ reporting. If a station’s commentary is perceived as consistently liberal or conservative, its reporting may be dismissed as such.
However, I’m making an exception to that rule: the First Amendment. Stations should take to the air to defend freedom of speech and the press and argue for expansion of its rights and protections — be that access to the dashcam video at the local police station or a federal shield law for whistle blowers.
A CBS affiliate should not allow the president to get away with saying that CBS News is “an enemy of the American people.” Ditto for NBC and ABC affiliates.
Stations must be careful not to preach or talk down to their viewers. That’s how the national media alienated Trump voters. Stations need to listen to their viewers and win them over by convincing them that their interests are aligned, that press freedoms are ultimately their freedoms.
And it would be good to hear from the heads of the station groups, the ones who are always saying what swell jobs they do producing news and serving the public interest.
They can speak out in op-eds and in speeches before civic groups and at universities. They can direct the executives of the NAB and state broadcast associations to do the same.
I fully understand that the No. 1 job and responsibility of the station group executives is to make money, and so they have to be mindful of what they say. They have big issues pending before Congress and the FCC, notably ownership deregulation, the repack and ATSC 3.0. Criticizing the administration is not the way to get your way in Washington.
But it can be done. You just have to be respectful in how you say it.
Durbin’s NAB speech contained a challenge. “As local broadcast news organizations, you have a greater ability to defend the integrity of the media because your listeners and viewers trust you more than just about any other media. That means that you have enormous power in your hands.”
My hope is that broadcasters accept the challenge.
One of Trump’s tactics in his battle with the traditional national news media is to dilute their influence and to find other avenues for his message by throwing open the doors of the White House to other news organizations, particularly Trump-friendly ones like Breitbart and Gateway Pundit.
This outreach includes local TV broadcasters. One of Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s first moves was to set up so-called Skype seats that allow reporters in the provinces to ask questions at Spicer’s press briefings.
And the first to seize the opportunity was Kimbery Kalunian at Nexstar’s WPRI Providence, R.I. She asked about Trump’s threat to cut off federal grants to sanctuary cities like Providence. She was going after the local angle on a national story, and might have gotten some real news if allowed a follow up.
Last Monday night, the eve of Trump’s first address to Congress, Trump hosted a dinner for 18 local TV reporters from around the country to discuss his latest thinking on policy and to drop some hints about the upcoming speech.
Regardless of Trump’s motivation, it’s hard to argue against giving more and diverse news outlets access to the White House, even though some of them are rather sketchy.
And I’m not concerned that local broadcasters will be pushovers as some do, tools of the Trump communications office.
On Feb. 17, Sinclair’s KOKH Oklahoma City served notice that local broadcasters can be just as nettlesome as national ones. Reporter Phil Cross broke the story last month that Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, used his personal email for state business while he was Oklahoma attorney general, and then lied about it in at his Senate confirmation hearing.
It wasn’t enough strop Pruitt from getting the job, but it demonstrated that at least some locals are plenty serious about what they do and are not to be trifled with.