Free Press Under Attack … Who Cares?

GELFAND’S WORLD--Earlier this week, Writers Bloc presented a panel discussion aptly titled, Is Freedom of the Press Under Siege? It was chaired by Kevin Roderick, [] founder of LAobserved. The panelists included Dylan Byers of CNN, Cathleen Decker, senior political journalist for the LA Times, and Karlene Goller, an attorney who was formerly with the LA Times. 

You might recall that back in February, Trump referred to the media as "the enemy of the American people."  He had made comments during the campaign about making life more difficult for the New York Times, particularly when it came to their right to print negative comments about him. When a person with the power of the presidency makes such threats, it's not surprising that his targets become concerned. 

As Cathleen Decker recounted, Trump's campaign rallies included nasty remarks about the press that were picked up by his audience. As the campaign wore on, members of those audiences came to rallies prepared in advance to shout nasty epithets at reporters. Since the Trump campaign segregated reporters within a bullpen, they were an easily identifiable target. 

The American press found itself in a bind. The news media found themselves reporting on a pathological liar, but Trump was a liar who retaliated against those who were trying to expose him. Trump, it must be said, has a certain talent for retaliation. He talked about the "failing" New York Times, and refers to truthful stories about himself as fake news. 

A generation of journalists who had grown up on Orwell's 1984 and The Manchurian Candidate found themselves looking at the same sorts of ugly propaganda that were made famous not only in those works of fiction, but also in the propaganda efforts of communist and fascist governments.

Calling the media the enemy of the American people was something of a last straw, raising some very real concerns among those who began to view Trump's election as "regime change" that went beyond normal boundaries. We've had some pretty conservative presidents over the past couple of decades, but neither Reagan nor either Bush tried to turn the American people against the press as a legitimate element of American governance. 

Now all of a sudden, we are experiencing that very thing. It's not surprising that serious thinkers became concerned, or that people would be asking whether freedom of the press is under siege. 

What's interesting here in April is that the members of this panel didn't seem as concerned about impending loss of freedoms as people were as recently as February. It's not so much that people feel secure with Trump and Ryan in charge of things, but that the immediate, direct threat to freedom of the press doesn't seem as serious all of a sudden. 

What's going on? 

I would guess that members of the mainstream press have found out that they can give as good as they are getting. They have stayed on the story of Russian influence in spite of Trump's protestations. And while all this has been going on, there has been a distinct absence of jackbooted thugs breaking down the doors of newsrooms and rounding up editors. Trump gets to continue to complain, but he's beginning to discover that he can't forbid fact checking. Moreover, there is a longstanding tradition both here and abroad: When the president of the United States says something -- anything at all -- it is supposed to be taken seriously. Members of the press and of the opposite political party listen carefully, parsing each comment. It is expected that the president considers carefully what to say in public. 

Until The Donald, that is. And by shooting from the hip, Trump makes a fool of himself, and lessens his ability to play the dictator. It's hard to do that when people don't take you seriously. 

Trump is only now learning (if he is learning) that when the government says we are sending an Armada to Korean waters to send a message to North Korea, it is going to look pretty stupid if that carrier task force is actually traveling in the opposite direction. In the early going of this presidency, those who tell the truth about Trump's lies are holding a modest lead, in that public acceptance of Trump as president continues to fall. 

In other words, there is still room in our journalistic universe for the truth to be told. Even the president's powers are limited. Panelists pointed out that the Los Angeles Times just published a series on Trump's propensity to lie. As Dylan Byers politely pointed out, this was pretty much preaching to the choir. That is likely correct, but the ability to preach to the choir is an important part of press freedom. 

There was also some legal and technical discussion. The panelists agreed that getting sources within the administration is important. It follows that protecting sources is equally important. 

Attorney Goller provided a fairly involved explanation for the current state of the law. As of now, the view of the courts is that as long as a reporter does not do anything directly illegal, that reporter can make use of sources that innocently fall into his or her hands. That doesn't mean that a government staffer who works in the White House can't be prosecuted for taking a document and providing it to a reporter. But if the reporter receives a comment (with or without a document) from a White House source, the reporter is legally safe. The reporter's task is therefore to learn to protect human sources and to hide the origins of documents. 

The punch line to all this legalistic stress is that newsrooms and reporters are learning to use electronic masking tools to protect the origins and content of emails. Encryption is becoming a journalistic skill that is just as important to the new generation as the Associated Press Style Manual. 

This has been a necessarily incomplete rendition of a complex discussion carried out among a learned panel. There are a couple of issues that I would like to raise based on some of that discussion. 

As reporter Decker pointed out, modern newspapers keep separation between the editorial and reporting sides. Editorial positions are determined by separate groups of people and written by editorial writers. In theory, this protects the integrity -- and therefore the reputation -- of the news-gathering side. 

I question the usefulness of this separation in one regard. When it comes to arguments involving fact -- let's take as an example the credibility of anti-vaccination vs. pro-vaccination views -- there is a legitimate and overwhelming balance in favor of the safety and efficacy of vaccination. It's taken years for the news media to begin to report that one side is right and the other is wrong. 

Through long tradition, the journalistic, reporting side of the news doesn't like to use the word liar or the word lie when it comes to obvious untruths. There are a couple of problems with this approach. The first is that it fails to complete the story. When one side is clearly lying, it fails to make clear to the reader that this is the case. The other problem with this is a little more nuanced. In a battle between legitimate reporters and liars, the legitimate side is fighting with one arm tied behind its back. Infowars makes some story up out of whole cloth, Brietbart repeats it, and legitimate newspapers are stuck in a very old rut, reporting the allegation and filling in a little "balance" by explaining that there is no evidence that Obama ever apologized to Japan for the American use of the atomic bomb, nor did he wiretap Trump. 

Meanwhile, gullible people read such stories on the internet and on their Facebook feeds, and become poisoned in their attitudes toward voting for non-Republican candidates. 

There is a bigger question that I raised briefly with a couple of the panelists at the end. Back in the early 1990s, Rush Limbaugh started to push the idea that the mainstream media have a liberal bias. It's an entirely nonsensical assertion, unless you interpret liberal bias to mean anything and everything that is not in agreement with what Limbaugh says on any given day. But an entire generation of American voters was exposed to this, in spite of the fact that most major newspapers and television networks are owned by fabulously wealthy individuals and corporations. Meanwhile, Fox News does the Limbaugh approach as an entire television news network. 

So the basic question, yet to be answered effectively, is how to combat wholesale lying by wealthy interests. It may be impossible to convince a whole generation of conservatives that there could be at least some validity to the idea of providing health care in spite of preexisting conditions, but it is important to communicate to those people that there is a debate. In short, has freedom of the press been downgraded by the big lie, but remains one means in the pursuit of telling the truth to gullible people?


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at