The average American journalist doesn’t cover the White House. She is probably overworked, underpaid and frustrated that her stories don’t have more of an impact. The average journalist is not powerful. But the media? Well, that’s another matter.
This is a point The Boston Globe is seeking to make through an unprecedented appeal to news organizations across the country. The Globe editorial page has asked media outlets to publish coordinated editorials on Thursday, challenging President Donald Trump’s attacks on a free press.
About 200 news organizations have responded thus far, from The Philadelphia Inquirer to The Denver Post. “This dirty war on the free press must end,” wrote The Globe’s deputy managing editor Marjorie Pritchard in making the appeal. “We are not the enemy of the people.”
Trump’s strategy of constantly vilifying and undermining individual journalists and media organizations serves a number of different functions. First, it’s a very effective way of changing the subject when Trump comes under criticism in the media. Second, it’s a form of harassment, that can intimidate pesky reporters, especially when the online trolls pile on. Third, it’s a way of undermining public confidence in the media. According to “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl, Trump said to her, “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”
In fact, the United States is experiencing a historic press freedom crisis. Four journalists and a media worker were killed in the Capital Gazette shooting in Maryland and a blogger was gunned down in Chicago under mysterious circumstances, making the United States one of the world’s most deadly countries for journalists this year, behind only Afghanistan and Syria, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists data.
And it doesn’t stop there. At least four sources who are alleged to have provided classified information to journalists are being prosecuted, three of them for espionage. At least 75 journalists have been harassed or attacked since the beginning of last year and 37 have been arrested, many of them while covering demonstrations, according to the US Press Freedom Tracker.
Trump did not cause these problems. But instead of using his platform to rally the American public in support of the First Amendment, Trump’s hostile rhetoric is fueling divisions. It’s also having a terrible influence on press freedom around the world. Countries as varied as China and Poland have justified their media repression by casting it as a legitimate effort to combat “fake news.”
Trump has sought to divide and conquer, to pit journalists against each other. When Trump attacks one media organization, others do not necessarily rush to its defense. At times our country is well served by a media that is fractious, independent and competing for access and information. It takes a lot to bring the media together.
Ironically, Trump may have succeeded. Even Fox News spoke up in support of its historic rival CNN when one of the network’s White House reporters, Kaitlan Collins, was barred from a media event.
The reality is that no single journalist – even the most powerful – can stand up to Trump. But if the media can speak with one voice on the critical issue of press freedom, perhaps even the President will have to listen.