By Mark Wolf
President Donald Trump calls the news media "the enemy of the American people."
"Fake news" is the preferred piñata of grievance against the media.
Yet a panel of journalists during a session on "A Free and Responsible Press in Today's Political Climate" at NCSL's Legislative Summit said the threat to press freedom felt no greater today than it has been at other times in America's past.
"We have the most robust press since Watergate," said Frank Phillips, statehouse bureau chief for The Boston Globe. "I do think there is an economic threat but in terms of dealing with freedom and the First Amendment, we're in very good shape. We've been there before. JFK tried to shut down David Halberstam in Vietnam."
Dan Kennedy, a reporter, media commentator and author who works for public TV station WGBH in Boston, said he "certainly sees some threats" but also cited a "sustained campaign against leaks aimed in part against journalism" under President Barack Obama. "There were nine or 10 cases in which the Obama administration went after leakers. James Risen of The New York Times faced threat of jail for years for not giving up a source; James Rosen of Fox News was actually investigated by the government. Attorney General Eric Holder said it was probably the worst thing he did as attorney general. It could possibly grow into more than what we’ve seen so far but at the moment, despite the extreme rhetoric coming out of the Trump White House, substantively it’s about the same as we’ve had."
Reporters have to deal almost daily with the ever-present mantra of "fake news."
"I do worry that readers are much more likely to discard facts they don’t agree with," said John Frank, who covers the statehouse for The Denver Post..
Kennedy said the media practices "what is sometimes referred to as 'journalism as a discipline of verification.' We try to get it right, when we don't, we correct it and we try to move on. My fear is that we’re in an age of extreme polarization and people having trouble believing anything that doesn’t fit within their pre-existing ideological beliefs."
Relationships between media and politicians can be adversarial without being contentious, said Frank, citing an effort by Colorado Republicans to connect informally with the reporters who cover them.
"We had a happy hour, did some weekly briefings on policy and getting-to-know-you sessions. Overall it was a success. I got to know lawmakers a lot better," he said. "It's a model we can see at all levels. Honestly, I wish the Democrats would have done the same thing."
Polls that show a lack of trust in the media are "really tracking fragmentation of the media," said Kennedy.
"Back in days when there was consensus news, getting news from networks and a local paper, people generally trusted what they were reading and watching. Now we we are flocking to media that is most congenial to our views and prejudices. If you ask people 'Do you trust the media?' it conjures the image of this monolithic force that you don’t agree with and they say 'No I don’t trust the media,' but if you ask people 'Do you trust the media you use, more than 60 percent of liberals trusted National Public Radio, PBS, the New York Times and the BBC and more than 90 percent of conservatives trusted Fox News. In fact, trust in the media that we use is actually quite high."
Still, Frank said, reporters "can and should do more and we need to work on it. What I do on a daily basis is I spend more time explaining to readers how I got the information for that story ... linking online to my source material..
"Too few of the public consider us their emissary to ask important and not-so-important people the questions they're interested in to be a productive citizen."
The dwindling interest in state government by much of local television has put even more of a burden on print and online reporters (Kennedy cited the Connecticut Mirror and Texas Tribune) to do accountability journalism.
"Thirty years ago we had a good competitive relationship with TV," said Phillips, "but that has gone by the wayside."
And the necessity to grab readers' attention online may have diminished the allure of statehouse reporting.
"In a media world in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to make money and the incentive is clicks and making small amounts of money from digital advertising, it could be the incentive is to rely less on serious coverage of state politics and public policy. Ironically were seeing more coverage of national politics than we have for years. In the Trump administration you can see a coming together of the desire to cover something substantive but also something a lot of people are going to click on. I think that’s a hard sell at the state level," said Kennedy, who added a grace note of optimism for the newspaper industry's financial travails.
"Over the last few years, people in our business have come to realize digital advertising is never going to make up for the revenue that was lost when print papers began their decline, but we're seeing a move toward charging people to read digital newspapers. The news of that is fairly encouraging. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post have had tremendous success in charging for online access.
"Among regional papers, the Globe has had more success than any paper in the country at that. The Globe gone from 65,000 to a little under 90,000 digital subscribers. There’s been a pretty significant boon everywhere since the election, seeing what economists view as a flight to quality. The Globe has a goal of 200,000 digital subscribers and the people who run the Globe believe that if they can get to that point, now they have a sustainable business. We may be seeing a gradual sift to a new way of doing business in news business whether it will work or not remains to be seems but I’m somewhat optimistic that papers like the Globe are slowly getting to a model that’s going to work."
And a tip from the panel for legislators who may have trouble selling a story with important policy implications but may lack high-impact appeal: Seek out a reporter who may not have responsibility for covering the main story of the day and may have more time to dig into something with depth.
Mark Wolf is editor of the NCSL Blog.