Last week, The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board, like many editorial boards across the country, received a message from The Boston Globe asking us to join with them and “publish an editorial on August 16 on the dangers of the [Trump] administration's assault on the press.”
“This dirty war on the free press must end,” the message read, calling “for urgent action by those committed to free speech and the free press to stand against a White House and its allies who are bent on eroding a pillar of an informed democracy.”
Our emotions, to say the least, were mixed.
While we agree that labeling journalists the “enemy of the American people” and journalism “fake news” is not only damaging to our industry but destructive to our democracy, a coordinated response from independent — dare we say “mainstream” — news organizations feeds a narrative that we’re somehow aligned against this Republican president. In fact, we’re sure he will somehow spin it thus, if he even acknowledges the effort. That’s been his ongoing strategy, and we have no reason to believe he’ll reverse course now. Why should he? It’s working for him.
Still, it's our job to hold the powerful accountable. We do that by asking questions and challenging administration after administration — be they at the White House or in City Hall (here in Baltimore, the City Council president and mayor, both Democrats, also have complained about press interference). Most of our readers expect that from us, even when they don't agree with us. And so, regardless of how it looks, we ultimately feel the need to point out that a free press is critical to a properly functioning America. Five of our fellow staffers at the Capital Gazette gave their lives for this cause when they were attacked by a gunman in their Annapolis newsroom in June. Our commitment to protecting the First Amendment and resisting any assaults on the free press is stronger than ever.
The challenges our industry faces predate Donald Trump’s presidency, of course. While our online readership has grown consistently, we steadily have been losing readers and advertisers in print for years — some because of our content, others because of our content delivery methods and the population’s changing habits.
And media have always had contentious relationships with presidents and other government figures. We are the so-called Fourth Estate, after all — the watchdogs who dig up the skeletons of those in power. Can you imagine having us barking at your heels all day long?
This president, like no other in many ways, has had a particularly hard time with pushback, however. And he deals with it by deflection and deceit, which, frankly, we’re duty bound to reveal. There’s a meme going around Twitter right now that sums up what we do – or should be doing. It’s quoting a woman quoting her university journalism professor: “If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out of the f***ing window and find out which is true.”
So that’s the goal: to assess, analyze and uncover truth. That’s obviously easier said than done, and our profession’s “truths” do not always reflect the entire public’s — particularly those on the right. While we try to keep our personal feelings out of our work, they can still unintentionally influence the things we cover and the way we cover them. And to many, that’s a failure on our part — one we’ve largely been given a pass on in the past. But not in today’s partisan climate.
In early 2016, both Republicans and Democrats believed the news media keep our leaders in line (77 percent and 74 percent respectively), according to a Pew Research Center poll. A little over a year later in May 2017 — four months after President Trump took office — the believer numbers were up to 89 percent for Democrats and down to an abysmal 42 percent for Republicans. We’d hate to see where they are today.
And while it’s fair to lay much of the blame for that at our president’s fake-news feet, journalists know we bear some responsibility as well.
So what do we do? Keep doing what we do best, for one: talking to people, grasping for understanding and trying to determine what’s really in the interests of the public good. But maybe we also open our minds a bit further and look a little deeper into our own motivations.
And without a doubt, we keep pushing back against this president’s — any president’s — abuses of power. Because that’s what we’re here to do. Our democracy depends on it.
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