Gene Policinski, inside the First Amendment
Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. White House internal disputes that stall policy decisions. Even a mini-crisis involving North Korea.
At long last: the stuff of journalism.
After seeming eons of the squishiness of reporting on campaign claims and counterclaims, email investigations that went nowhere, and distractions including faux-home TV shopping pitches, late-night tweets and daytime insults, a free press is now in full operating mode in the role that the nation’s founders intended: as a watchdog on government.
The fact is that in an era when even the existence of “facts” is seriously debated, the nation’s news media is doing its job by keeping its fellow citizens informed and holding government official accountable — most recently around Flynn’s departure, with questions that echo the fabled inquiry of Watergate: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?”
About a week ago, The Washington Post reported that Flynn might have discussed the Obama administration’s sanctions against Russia with the Russian ambassador, an action that would have been inappropriate and possibly even illegal at the time it took place. The White House knew for weeks of Flynn’s compromising behavior — but with the Post report, we knew it.
The latest news is the White House’s fierce condemnation of the leaks that brought about Flynn’s resignation. The press has pushed back, calling it a move to focus blame on those who revealed Flynn’s conduct rather than the conduct itself. That anti-media message was nonetheless fully reported by the same “fake media” that Trump targeted.
And then there was North Korea’s surprise launch of an intermediate-range ICBM missile during a U.S. visit by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Along with that news, reporters and photographers conveyed to Americans how their new president handled the moment — from “live” images of the terse statement of support for Japan, to the casual approach to discussing national security at a resort restaurant table, in full view of other diners.
Notice please, no mention here of “Saturday Night Live” sketches, late-night comedy monologues, social media rants gone viral or “alt-right” opinion operations. Let’s defend those as a vigorous, vital part of free speech, or even — in a stretch — as covered by the free press protections for opinion on matters of public interest. But none are Journalism with a big “J.”
No doubt this favorable view of how journalists operate on our behalf won’t be shared by the sizeable numbers of those who simply dislike or distrust the press. And Trump and Co. continue to send mixed signals about Flynn’s resignation and reporting around it: From counselor Kellyanne Conway’s “100 percent” support of Flynn, to Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s statement about an hour later that Trump demanded Flynn’s resignation because of an “eroding level of trust,” to Trump’s complaint that “fake media” conspired with rogue members of the intelligence community to get Flynn fired, followed by a rambling broadside against the media at an extended press conference.
But the fact (that word again) is that our nation’s first leaders faced a press more antagonistic than today’s mainstream media — a press that regularly dealt in “fake news” and gleefully manufactured scandals — and still went the extra mile to create unprecedented protections for what we say and write, and what we report and offer our opinions about.
By the way, that “we” is you, me and the blogger next door, as well as the national news outlets, and the local newspapers and radio stations. Once we get information — from the president or from leaks — we’re free to tell others about it. Self-governing societies require that free flow of information, versus government handouts or news blackouts.
Martin Baron, the Washington Post’s executive editor, was called on Feb. 15 at the Code Media conference in California to both explain and defend the Post’s approach to reporting on the Trump administration.
Baron’s response: “We’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work. We’re doing our jobs.”
Baron also said the news media, overall, “are too competitive with each other to behave in any way like a party … we’re not the opposition either. We’re independent.”
In addition to paying attention to what the press is reporting, we ought to be celebrating that independence — from the Post to Fox News to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to CNN to The Wall Street Journal to “Fox & Friends” to Breitbart News. The “marketplace of ideas” is alive in the Digital Age.
Lest this be considered unrestrained adoration of all journalism, let’s agree that there is plenty to be critical of in this wild, disruptive era of new tech, social media and upside-down finances behind most media operations. To name a few examples: the often seamy “reports” by online outlets like the former Gawker site, the decision by BuzzFeed to report unsupported allegations about President Trump, and the well-aired rumors about First Lady Melania Trump.
And there are the ongoing questions since the dawn of the Republic over media ethics, good taste, accuracy, fairness, and — to borrow a useful phrase coined by comedian Stephen Colbert — “truthiness.”
But let’s hear it today for the free press. Here’s a final fact: Right now, the news media is showing the nation what the “news” part of that name means.