Is US press freedom declining under the Trump administration?

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“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

Posted by Kaitlyn Bancroft on Thursday, November 15, 2018

People on the streets of Washington, D.C., comment on U.S. press freedom issues. (Kaitlyn Bancroft, Ben Winters, Sam Ditto)

Editor’s note: Daily Universe reporters Kaitlyn Bancroft and Lauren Malner traveled to Washington D.C. to explore press freedom and the First Amendment in today’s increasingly volatile media landscape. This installment addresses the state of U.S. press freedom under the Trump administration. First in a series.

See also: “Legitimate media criticism needed to hold the press accountable”

WASHINGTON — Sitting in a tall, black leather chair, Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, asked Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai a yes or no question: “Do you agree with President Trump that the media is the enemy of the American people?”

Just prior to asking the question during the March 8, 2017, oversight hearing with the Senate Commerce Committee, Udall cited Pai’s official FCC biography, which states he has been “an outspoken defender of First Amendment freedoms.” Udall also quoted Pai from a 2014 Wall Street Journal Op-Ed in which Pai wrote, “The government has no place pressuring media organizations into covering certain stories.”

Pai, however, skirted the question: “I don’t want to wade into the larger political debates, but I’ll simply reaffirm the quotes that you offered from last year and the year before.”

Later in the hearing, Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-New Hampshire, referenced a 2017 Op-Ed published in The Hill by former FCC Chairman Michael J. Copps, in which he quoted Pai as saying, “In my view, anyone who has the privilege of serving at the FCC — any preacher with a pulpit, if you will — has the duty to speak out whenever Americans’ First Amendment rights are at stake.”

Hassan referred back to Udall’s original question: “So yes or no, do you agree with the statement that the President made that the media is the enemy of the American people?”

Pai restated he didn’t want to get into “the larger political debates” and said, “All I can tell you is that I personally believe that every American enjoys the First Amendment freedoms that he or she is granted under the Constitution.”

Over at media advocacy organization Free Press, Dana Floberg and her colleagues were watching the hearing.

“We’ve fought a lot with Chairman Pai in our work at Free Press, but this was pretty shocking to hear from a self-described First Amendment champion,” Floberg said. “And I think it raises a lot of questions when those in charge of regulating our media feel that it’s too politically dicey to openly state that a free press is not the enemy.”

Pai later released a letter directly answering “no” to the question, “Do you believe the media is the ‘enemy’ of the American people?” and stating, “A free media is vital to our democracy.”

However, “I still can’t get over his hesitancy,” Floberg said.

Floberg isn’t alone in her concern. A 2018 report published by the International Press Freedom Mission to the United States highlighted five areas which “paint a perturbing picture for press freedom in the U.S.”: the physical safety of journalists covering protests or major events; an increase in border stops and searches of media employees; weakening of source protection and rising numbers of journalists prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917; the Freedom of Information Act system being “lethargic and frequently unresponsive”; and the Trump administration’s verbal attacks on media. These factors leave journalists facing greater abuse, harassment and threats, particularly online.

“By openly and aggressively targeting journalists and media outlets, the current U.S. administration risks undermining media freedom and creates a culture where journalists find themselves unprotected,” the report reads.

However, a 2018 Quinnipiac University national poll found 66 percent of American voters say the news media is an important part of democracy, while only 22 percent say it’s the enemy of the people. The poll also found voters trust the media more than President Donald Trump to tell the truth about important issues, at 53-37 percent.

Defining press freedom

Floberg, a policy analyst with Free Press, said one of the most widely understood parts of press freedom is freedom from government intervention, meaning the government can’t punish journalistic institutions for reporting on certain stories or giving voice to whistleblowers.

Another critical piece of press freedom, however, is freedom from other powerful interests such as advertisers or corporations. Floberg said Free Press has been working on opposing big media mergers, such as the Sinclair-Tribune merger. The Sinclair Broadcast Group often forces local stations to air prepackaged content “that fits their corporate agenda but doesn’t necessarily reflect the values of local journalists or local communities on the ground,” Floberg said. Tribune Media called off the $3.9 billion merger in August 2018, according to NPR.

She also said the U.S. is “definitely” in danger of losing much of its press freedom, seen through instances like an uptick in journalists being arrested at protests, including the 2017 inauguration protests in Washington, D.C., where nine journalists were arrested along with over 200 protesters, according to the New York Times. All of the charges were eventually dropped.

Floberg said the Trump administration’s narrative of media being the enemy of the people is a serious issue “when we consider the media is really meant to be the fourth estate that protects the people, that serves the public in a way that is meant to be antagonistic to other powerful institutions.”

From a legal standpoint, Trump isn’t having much of an impact on press freedom, according to Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum’s Freedom Forum Institute and of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He defined press freedom as “the right of every American, not just those who work in the profession of journalism, to express themselves in writing, communicate with their fellow citizens and express their opinions without government interference.”

He said freedom doesn’t cover private companies, though, which have their own rights to freedom of speech. He also emphasized the U.S. has strong press freedom protections, particularly when it comes to reporting on public officials and government.

“The Trump administration makes a lot of noise,” he said. “But if you look at changes in the law, at least yet (there’s been) no real changes.”

Trump has damaged, however, public support of the media. Policinski said the press is being attacked philosophically by an administration that says journalists are “hateful, horrendous people” producing “fake news.”

“You have this assault on public confidence in the press and then you just have a multiplicity of sources… in which it’s very hard to tell what’s credible and what’s not,” he said. “And I think it’s very negative. The actual legal structure right now stands, but who knows where we’re going with it?”

Katie Townsend, the legal director for nonprofit association Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, added the First Amendment goes beyond allowing journalists to report without fear of repercussions; it also guarantees both the media and the public the right to attend judicial proceedings and obtain judicial records.

“So there are other aspects of the First Amendment protection for press freedom that we rely on every day that are very important,” she said.

Checks and balances

Floberg said if the U.S. ever truly lost its hold on press freedom, one of the greatest harms would be greater difficulty in addressing corruption in any powerful institution.

“And that can run amok without the check and balance of a free press being able to investigate that story (and) report what’s actually going on,” she said.

Policinski said without press freedom, there’s no effective force for holding the government accountable, particularly in an era of sophisticated communications where many nations have entire teams devoted to information — or disinformation. Losing press freedom would also mean losing the information needed to be self-governing.

“The founders didn’t give us the First Amendment and the right of free press so we could grunt or just write silly things. They held out as the highest use of freedom of the press the role of being a watchdog and holding government accountable,” he said. “So I think it’s at the very core of democracy.”

Policinski also said as the emphasis on math and science education has increased in public schools, civics education has declined, perhaps because of an assumption that people already know about their freedoms.

But according to the Freedom Forum Institute’s 2018 State of the First Amendment survey, only one of the 1,009 people surveyed could correctly name all five rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Although 77 percent of respondents were supportive of the First Amendment, 40 percent couldn’t name a single First Amendment Freedom, and 36 percent could only name one. Nine percent thought the First Amendment includes the right to bear arms, but that’s actually guaranteed by the Second Amendment.

However, Policinski said the Newseum Freedom Forum Center is pleased the materials on the NewseumED website have reached more than 12 million students, according to the website. Resources include lesson plans, videos, interactive and other tools.

Policinski said it’s important to increase First Amendment education at an early age.

“What it gets down to is really empowering the next generation or several generations of citizens to live up to their obligations to be a self-governing nation,” he said.

Policinski added that people can support press freedom by subscribing to accurate news gathered by professionals. Though there’s nothing wrong with blogs, they are often incomplete or focused on a single issue. Supporting press freedom also means supporting local news outlets, as the vast majority of journalism is practiced on a local or regional level, he said.

In addition, he said press freedom should be protected because all First Amendment freedoms are interdependent.

“If you don’t have freedom of press and speech, then what’s the point in having to rally people to petition and assembly?” Policinski said. “If you lose one, I think you begin to lose them all.”

Floberg said it’s a fallacy to think because press freedom and other rights are written in the First Amendment, people don’t have to worry about them. Rather, the press needs protection against government and corporate encroachment.

She also said one of the best things people can do to support press freedom is to use their right to publish, share and be part of the press.

“We’ve got to work constantly to make sure that we’re upholding the First Amendment and upholding press freedom, even outside of the scope of the First Amendment,” she said. “It is, unfortunately, something that I do think we have to worry about a lot, especially right now.”

Townsend said courts can protect press freedom by advocating for “robust First Amendment protections,” and people can protect press freedom by practicing journalism.

“Going into the profession and doing it, holding yourself to really demanding standards… I think that’s something that young journalists and journalism students should be doing,” she said.

Floberg added an optimistic perspective.

“As we’ve seen these problems getting more serious, we’ve also seen a lot more energy being devoted towards protecting press freedom and trying to build up the resources that we need to take some of those freedoms back to keep fighting for an actually free press,” she said.

The next package addresses the definition and impact of “fake news.”

Dana Floberg, Katie Townsend and Gene Policinski discuss definitions of press freedom and what people are lacking in their First Amendment education. (Kaitlyn Bancroft)

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