A newspaperman formerly based in Missouri paid a visit to the White House recently and told Donald Trump that the language he had been using about journalists was not only divisive “but increasingly dangerous.”
The man was A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times. A few years ago, Sulzberger was the Time’s bureau chief in Kansas City. While reporting from Missouri, he covered the Joplin tornado in 2011 and the drug-induced death of a model in the bed of August A. Busch IV.
Trump had asked for the meeting with Sulzberger, and it was supposed to be “off the record.” But a few days later, Trump tweeted about it, and what he had to say prompted the newspaper publisher to release a statement.
“I told him that although the phrase ‘fake news’ is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists ‘the enemy of the people,'” Sulzberger said. “I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”
Sulzberger told Trump that his remarks were undermining the ideals of the nation, and that his rhetoric was being used by some regimes to justify crackdowns on journalists. Trump’s tweets criticizing CNN, the Times, NBC News, and other media organizations can be funny and weird, but they also do harm around the world.
Trump’s tweets about CNN were used in Libya last year to discredit a report by the network about slavery there. When the leader of a nation that historically worked to spread press freedom around the world now delegitimizes journalism, it gives dictators a reason to threaten reporters to protect their own power. In Myanmar, two Reuters journalists are facing up to 14 years in prison for allegedly violating Myanmar’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
In this country the drumbeat of Trump’s language is having a corrosive effect as well. Last week, he appeared before members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars meeting in Kansas City and said, “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people,” pointing to the reporters in the room. Some in the audience booed.
Like the Boy Scout leaders who apologized for Trump’s remarks a year ago, the VFW later issued a statement saying it was “disappointed to hear some of our members boo the press during President Trump’s remarks.”
Trump’s attitude has infected the popular culture. Some people believe the news media is supposed to be applauding the things he does. But the news people who cover a government’s activities are not cheerleaders. Journalists monitor the power of government, and uncover injustice.
In their book, The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write that the purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing. They list 10 principles to achieve this purpose.
- Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
- Its first loyalty is to citizens.
- Its essence is a discipline of verification.
- Its practitioners must maintain independence from those they cover.
- Journalism must serve as an independent monitor of power.
- It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
- It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
- It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
- Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.
- Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.
These were the principles that were included in a basic news writing and reporting course that I taught a few years ago at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. If any of my students later tackled a career in journalism, I have to say I worry about them in today’s climate. And I wonder if they still have jobs. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Labor Department figures, newspaper newsroom employees dropped by 45 percent over the period from 2008 to 2017, from about 71,000 workers to 39,000.
Now we have a president who is denigrating their work.
There are always going to be people who disagree with a reporter’s account of events. And sometimes newspapers make mistakes. But Americans should remember that despots do not like newspapers when they cannot be controlled.
Americans should be concerned about an occupant of the White House who confuses fact with fiction. An ignorant people cannot long remain free. In the lobby of the building that houses the headquarters of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch there is etched in the wall a statement from Joseph Pulitzer in the North American Review from 1904. Pulitzer’s statement may be more relevant today than ever:
“Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mold the future of the Republic will be in the hands of journalists of future generations.”