Editorial boards throughout the country are called upon today to defend the news media.
The Boston Globe organized this effort, asking us to denounce President Donald Trump’s “dirty war against the free press.”
Trump calls journalists “enemies of the people.” He writes off unfavorable press as “fake news.”
Trump’s routine tweets, ranging from scurrilous to unhinged, played an odd role in propelling him to the presidency with a resume that included no elective office. The First Amendment protects those tweets, and his firebrand speeches, from authoritative intervention.
The First Amendment was not enacted to protect polite ideas and beliefs most people approve of. The founders crafted the law to protect all peaceful expressions, beliefs and assemblies. Those least popular, and outside the norm, are most in need of protection.
Trump has advanced his verbal and written attacks on the media to extremes, far beyond the boundaries of social norms. Don’t be surprised if his words inspire some deranged listener to bring physical harm to one or more members of the press.
The president needs to tone it down, but his words are protected by the same First Amendment that protects the journalist he lambasts. No one understands the wide boundaries of free speech more than members of the press.
Free speech means the president cannot order the silencing of any individual or group. It does not restrict him from lashing out at reporters for what they broadcast and write.
Though we do not condone Trump’s attacks, it is easy to understand his frustration with the media. Never in modern times, if ever in this country, have we seen such unified, minute-by-minute press hostility directed at a president. Yes, he asks for it. Yes, he is like no president we have known. That should not matter to journalists who purportedly enter the practice to present news objectively. Their dislike for a president should not give a green light to cover him with unbridled prosecutorial zeal.
The bias is not something we can write off as perception.
Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy analyzed news coverage of President Trump’s first 100 days in office. The decidedly nonconservative organization found the mainstream media set “a new standard for unfavorable press coverage of a president.” By a long shot.
Major newspapers and networks gave him three times more coverage than any president in history, without “a single major topic where Trump’s coverage, on balance, was more positive than negative.” Harvard found 93 percent of coverage by CNN and NBC was negative. CBS gave Trump 91 percent unfavorable coverage, The New York Times 87 percent, The Washington Post 83 percent, The Wall Street Journal 70 percent, and Fox News 52 percent.
It is reasonable to say coverage has become more negative since that study.
In this environment of unchecked bias, the public hears almost nothing of record breaking employment among all demographics. This is important news, whether or not Trump has played a role in it. The public hears almost nothing of soaring labor participation, or an assortment of other positive economic indicators. The audience needs information beyond hourly attacks on Trump.
We implore Trump to reel in his scathing, over-the-top assaults on the press. We likewise encourage big media professionals to examine their approach, recommitting to an objectivity they once held sacred. The media should keep the president in check, not set out to destroy him.
At this juncture, the audience cannot trust CNN, NBC, CBS, and other brands that comprise the big national follow-the-leader press.
The public should trust their local newspapers and broadcast stations. Local journalists provide less centralized coverage, mostly presented in a spirit of objectivity.
American media comprise a de facto “Fourth Estate,” pursuing truth in a manner that polices government and other institutions of power. That means acting like watchdogs, not rabid pit bulls assigned to attack.
Trump should understand and respect the media’s role, even when he thinks they are blatantly unfair. He should refrain from counterproductive, strident insults that could lead to harm. He should act more like the leader of the greatest country on earth, and less like a radio shock jock looking for ratings.
Both sides of this conflict need to think about the public. They should restore the decorum expected in an advanced, civilized society built on diverse perspectives, free speech and freedom of the press.
The Gazette editorial board