It’s the most wonderful time of the year. The holidays are upon us. We’re enjoying holiday gatherings with family and friends. The waistline is growing as we enjoy delectable desserts. And, for journalists, there’s hope in the new year.
As we look back on a year filled with never-ending push alerts, daily tweets from the President, and scandals rocking the Administration, take some solace in knowing many journalists are working hard to ensure the public knows what their government officials are doing.
The President has called the news media “fake” since the 2016 campaign. Many national and state leaders have aligned themselves with the President’s harsh criticism of the press. Trump hasn’t let up. Every time he calls journalism “fake,” he’s causing irreparable damage to the Fourth Estate. It’s undemocratic and unpatriotic.
It is quite obvious the President does not like to be questioned on policy and about decisions being made inside the White House. It’s also quite clear he’ll label anyone as “fake” who disagrees or takes exception with anything he says. That’s not how it works – or not how it’s supposed to work. When officials take a government post – whether President, Senator, Governor, County Commission, Mayor or City Council member – they must expect their work will be closely examined and criticized. Otherwise, they shouldn’t run for political office. In a democratic society, voters demand answers. The press provides them with answers on their elected officials.
As Thomas Jefferson once said: “When the speech condemns a free press, you are hearing the words of a tyrant.”
Our democracy will diminish if we look away. If the press stops digging deep to uncover government wrongdoing, that’s when our democracy ceases to flourish. Government officials, particularly those who want to deceive voters, have become quite clever in blaming the news media for the nation’s problems. That’s no mistake on the part of these politicians. They know true reporters have an obligation to their audience to seek the truth and report it. These politicians know journalists work to provide information through ethical, unbiased reporting.
Verbal attacks on journalists is problematic and increasingly dangerous for our nation. It tears at the very fabric upon which this nation was founded. Some politicians continue to call journalists “fake” because it’s the only way to distract the public from what’s really happening.
Our nation depends on a press that uncovers wrongdoing, investigates potential corruption, and keeps us informed. In 1964, the United States Supreme Court, in New York Times v. Sullivan, recognized that the press performs an important watchdog role and has a duty to criticize government officials who are not performing their job in the public interest. Furthermore, the justices said the press must be protected in order to further debate on issues of public importance.
But there is hope….
The holidays give us a time to reflect on how important the role of journalists is to our democracy. Some would argue our democracy is being threatened more today than ever before. It’s that determination to work long hours to find truth, to work weekends to get an exclusive, to work overnights to produce bombshell reports, and to interview newsmakers who provide a balanced view of our world. Those who are leading this nation must be held accountable.
Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope. Just last month, the New York Times reported unprecedented growth in digital subscriptions. That’s a sign people want to be informed. The Washington Post has soared past one-million digital subscriptions. In a report from CNN Money in September, Publisher Fred Ryan called the growth “exceptionally strong” and said those online subscriptions had more than tripled from a year ago. That’s not a coincidence. The 2016 election had a lot to do with it, but since the Inauguration, it is quite clear, Americans want – and have a right – to be informed about their government leaders.
President Trump’s attack on news outlet CNN has had helped the company’s ratings. Shows such as The Lead with Jack Tapper and Anderson Cooper 360 showed robust growth this year. In fact, CNN and MSNBC (which appeals to a left-sided political audience) showed double-digit ratings growth. It’s a clear sign that people are wanting to know more about what the nation’s leaders are up to.
In 2018, there will undoubtedly be more attacks on the press. More people will choose to back a political ideology rather than listening to the truth. They’ll attempt to discredit news organizations for investigating our elected officials.
The Society of Professional Journalists will continue to promote integrity, demand accuracy and fairness, challenge authority when necessary, celebrate diversity, and seek the truth. Our country is at a crossroads, and journalism is as pivotal today as it was when President Nixon was under a microscope. News outlets must continue to work toward being relevant and staying true to journalistic principles. It’s for the sake of our country’s democracy to do so.
“Our citizens may be deceived for a while, and have been deceived; but as long as the presses can be protected, we may trust to them for light.” –Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Stuart. 1799
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
David Baxley is Assistant Professor of Mass Communications, Francis Marion University, and a SPJ South Carolina member. Baxley worked in broadcast news since 1999. He is also a meteorologist. Before entering academia in 2016, Baxley worked as an investigative producer at WIAT-TV in Birmingham, Alabama, for two years. Baxley is a regular contributor to the SPJ Region 3 website, SizingUpTheSouth.com.