Newsrooms across the nation took an extraordinary initiative this week by uniting in an expression of support for a free press.
It was extraordinary for at least a couple of reasons. One is that newspapers typically shy away from drawing attention to themselves. They are there to report the news, not necessarily to be a part of it. What’s also extraordinary is the lengths to which the president of the United States has gone to vilify the press. There’s the feeling that it’s going too far, as in far enough to require a response.
The response is to the charge by President Donald Trump that journalists are “the enemy of the American people.” This, of course, is nonsense, but it is the tactic of those with tyrannical aspirations to repeat a lie often enough until it acquires the vestige of truth. It is also a distraction, which is also a tactic. For the current administration, distraction is a daily diet.
The Boston Globe, one of the nation’s pre-eminent newspapers, felt enough was enough and invited newsrooms to join in fighting back, and on a single day, Thursday, newspapers across the land published editorials offering rebuttal to the “enemy of the people” allegation and to the idea that any item of information the president doesn’t like can be labeled “fake news.”
The Record-Journal joined in, with an editorial criticizing the president’s penchant for name calling and stigmatization. News organizations are not the “enemy of the people,” said the editorial, but precisely the opposite. The paper’s sister publication, the Westerly Sun, in Rhode Island, ran an editorial expressing a similar point of view.
Participating organizations ranged from major metropolitan newspapers, like the New York Times, to small circulation weeklies. Early in the week it was reported that about 200 newsrooms were on board, but that number had nearly doubled by Thursday. I counted 391 on a spreadsheet supplied by the Globe, where papers could supply snippets of their editorials. “The president rails about ‘fake news' to distract from inconvenient truths,” said TucsonSentinel.com, of Arizona. “But there is no alternative to a free press: democracies run on facts.”
Not all newspapers participated in the Globe’s effort. There was concern, expressed by the Baltimore Sun, that a coordinated response “feeds a narrative that we’re somehow aligned against this Republican president.”
And there was some self scolding in this observation by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Just as his lack of restraint has often been the president’s self-inflicted wound, the bias of some of the press has hurt journalism, at the very moment when it is most needed to save itself. It is time for a truce.”
The president’s reaction did not seem to leave much room for a truce: “There is nothing that I would want more for our country than true FREEDOM OF THE PRESS,” he wrote. “The fact is that the press is FREE to write and say anything it wants, but much of what it says is FAKE NEWS, pushing a political agenda or just plain trying to hurt people.”
The U.S. Senate, on the other hand, passed a resolution Thursday saying “the press is not the enemy of the people.”
There’s speculation about what good, if any, will come of this. But it has already earned value, as an expression of independence in a nation that was founded as an expression against tyranny.
The president gets to decide many things, but he doesn’t get to decide what is and isn’t news. That’s for the people, and the news organizations that serve them, to decide.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org.