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Etc.: Our free press

Etc.: Our free press

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POSTED August 15, 2018 4:23 p.m.

This week a coordinated effort among the News Media Alliance, a reported 200 newspapers including the Boston Globe, and state newspaper associations including the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, seeks to defend the free press against the verbal attacks of President Trump.

That comes in what is undoubtedly a bad period for the news media, in part for business reasons (including the federal tariff on Canadian newsprint) and in part because of public opinion about the media.

According to an Ipsos poll, while 85 percent of those polled believe that “Freedom of the press is essential for American democracy” and 68 percent believe that “reporters should be protected from pressure from government or big business interests,” 29 percent of Americans agree that “the news media is the enemy of the American people,” and 26 percent believe that “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.” 

Here are two paragraphs from a New York Press Association editorial on this subject:

In our work as journalists, our first loyalty is to you. Our work is guided by a set of principles that demand objectivity, independence, open-mindedness and the pursuit of the truth. We make mistakes, we know. There’s nothing we hate more than errors but we acknowledge them, correct them and learn from them.

Our work is a labor of love because we love our country and believe we are playing a vital role in our democracy. Self-governance demands that our citizens need to be well-informed and that’s what we’re here to do. We go beyond the government issued press release or briefing and ask tough questions. We hold people in power accountable for their actions. Some think we’re rude to question and challenge. We know it’s our obligation.

It is true that Trump makes blanket condemnations of the news media in part for daring to cover him less than uncritically. There is a December 2016 New York Times column that predicted that Trump might attack the news media because that’s what his predecessor’s administration did, by spying on journalists and issuing subpoenas against reporters to get them to reveal their sources. 

The truth is that nearly every politician, regardless of party or lack of party, seeks to control the media. That’s why they hire media people (sometimes with taxpayer money) to send news releases telling us how great their person is and how horrible the other side is. The fact is that anyone with power over others — which means government at every level — needs to be held accountable, and that’s our job, whether they like it or not, and whether their supporters like it or not.

Here in the world of the community newspaper, we will report on Trump if Trump comes to Southwest Wisconsin, and only then, unless if something that Trump does — for instance, the tariff war or whatever it is — has significant effects on this area. Otherwise, we report local news, because that’s why people read The Journal. Southwest Wisconsin has plenty going on, as readers know.

There are those who believe journalists need to be completely unbiased. Since journalists are (believe it or don’t) human beings, and human beings are biased, I doubt that’s possible unless the reporter has complete disinterest in the story. Every journalist needs to be fair all of the time, however, and tell all the sides of a story, including the sides you may disagree with. That’s nothing more than doing your job.

Having not read what the Globe or any other newspaper proposes to print, I think whatever they do print is going to sail over the heads of readers if it’s viewed as an attack on Trump. Some of The Journal’s readers would be fine with attacking Trump. But a majority of voters in this area voted for Trump two years ago, and see attacks on Trump as attacks on themselves. It is amazing to me that people do not understand that.

This is not just about elected officials or government employees. We in the media routinely report things that people don’t necessarily want us to report about, but we report because it’s our responsibility to report. The things listed on page 8B and 9B every week are part of that responsibility. So is reporting on elected officials who make unguarded comments during public meetings, to use a recent local example. Our readers as taxpayers and voters deserve no less, because our taxes are paying for what the law enforcement and courts system does, and what every level of government does.

Yes, our line of work is protected by the First Amendment, and we are the only profession so protected. But the First Amendment doesn’t belong merely to the press. It belongs to every American, in the same way that the state Constitution’s freedom of expression protections, as well as the state’s Open Meetings and Open Records laws, belong to every Wisconsinite.  

Once upon a time, journalists were proud of getting attacked by politicians. 

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