A recent Sunday article in The New York Times featured an interview with Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, author of “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.”
“It’s adorable to think I made a living by pointing out that people were lying,” Franken said. “And people seemed to care about it back then. Now we have a president who calls the news media the enemy of the people.”
I thought of Franken’s quote recently when I attended a discussion at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill on threats to freedom of the press. UNC Law Professor Mary-Rose Papandrea resurrected Trump’s Twitter comment about the press as she cataloged a litany of threats to the media in an era of fake news and presidential tweets.
“The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” Trump said in that Feb. 17 tweet.
“This is a pretty startling thing for a president to say,” Papandrea said.
She noted that a healthy tension has characterized the relationship between presidents and the press since the founding of the Republic. But changes in technology, media economics and the political climate have brought new dangers to the “marketplace of ideas” that, she says, underpins American democracy.
One such threat is Trump himself, who has made no secret of his enmity toward the press.
During his campaign, Trump threatened to repeal the libel protections that allow the media to criticize public officials. As Papandrea pointed out, a president alone cannot change the Constitution’s protections of press freedom. But he does appoint the Supreme Court justices who can.
Trump through his Justice Department can throw reporters into jail for refusing to reveal sources. He can direct his National Security Agency to electronically monitor the phone calls and emails of news organizations.
And he can prosecute whistle-blowers who leak inside information to the media, as he is doing in the case of a 25-year-old government contractor accused of leaking classified documents about Russian hacking of local election officials (why shouldn’t we know that?).
Recently, Trump has reduced press access to the White House by curtailing news briefings and barring TV cameras.
The greater threat may not be Trump or any other government official, but rather the mistrust of the media whipped up by politicians and the willingness to accept fake news stories propagated by extremist groups or foreign governments.
“There’s a lot of rhetoric that what’s in the established media outlets is false, and I think it’s gaining traction,” Papandrea said. “A lot of people are very distrustful of what they’re reading in mainstream publications.”
One recent example: A Montana congressional candidate slugged a national reporter for asking aggressive questions during a special election in May. The Republican candidate was charged with assault before the election, but an admiring public still elected him.
Another might be an increase in libel verdicts against media by juries influenced by anti-press hostility. The News & Observer last fall lost a $7.5 million judgment after a jury believed an SBI analyst’s accusation that the paper had twisted her statements in an investigative series. (The ruling is on appeal.)
“I don’t know how much the jury’s perception of the media played into that adverse verdict,” Papandrea said. “But there is concern that a lot of the rhetoric we’re hearing about how evil the media is and fake news will infect juries.”
Combined with that is an erosion of the economic foundation that has allowed the traditional media to do its job.
The Internet and social media drain readers and advertising from newspapers and local television, meaning there are fewer journalists’ eyeballs watchdoging government. Longtime North Carolina journalists will tell you that there are far fewer reporters covering the N.C. General Assembly and the governor’s office than even a decade ago.
I understand the economics driving these decisions, and the shift of resources to digital journalism. But I can’t help but think citizens are less served than when I came here as an editor 20 years ago and there were four newspapers covering the Chapel Hill Town Council, Carrboro Board of Aldermen, Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools and Orange County commissioners.
At the Flyleaf session, one audience member asked why we should worry about the media any more than any regular citizen’s access to public information. I thought Papandrea had a good answer:
“The real concern is that the press does play this very important role in investigating and gathering information,” she said. “Without a press that can actually do that and bring the information to the public’s attention, we can talk among ourselves, but it will all be empty because we don’t have the information.”
Ted Vaden is a retired N&O editor who lives in Chapel Hill. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.