We can't allow presidents and public opinion to further diminish the work of the press

We can't allow presidents and public opinion to further diminish the work of the press
© Greg Nash

Just as the 2020 presidential election has begun with Democratic candidate debates and the nation more polarized than ever, we add to the mix the impeachment proceedings against President TrumpDonald John TrumpWHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Trump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage MORE. Just when we need excellent journalism the most, the nation's news media are more incapable of informing and enlightening the public than at any time in modern history. It is a sad and in many respects tragic time for the nation's news media, marginalized by the economics of the digital age as well as by government, politics, and even the biases of the American people.

The economic calamity that has befallen news media, especially newspapers, has been well documented. The Pew Research Center reports that, in 2008, there were 114,000 journalists working in U.S. newsrooms including print, broadcast, and digital. In 2018, that number was 86,000, a decline of 25 percent. That change was particularly harsh for newspapers, with the number of newsroom employees declining to 38,000 from 71,000, a decline of 47 percent. Once-great metro newspapers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, Denver, Dallas and Atlanta have experienced dramatic decreases in circulation and news staffs. And frequently when news media have been forced to lay off employees, older and more experienced journalists are the ones out the door. Younger, less experienced and cheaper journalists fill the gaps. 

In generations past, we had feisty secondary newspapers in major markets. Today, most are closed. In the few markets where secondary newspapers exist, they are just hanging on with barebones news staffs. 

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The University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism reported last year that almost 1,800 newspapers — 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies — have closed in the last 14 years. Many of the closures occurred in small towns and rural areas creating what university researchers call "news deserts," areas where people had no access to information about local and civic news.

Local television news has become more trivialized as viewership continues to decline. Network morning news programs are more devoted to breezy and brief news coverage with more emphasis on celebrity news and promotion of the prime-time lineup, especially programs such as “The Bachelorette” and “Love Island.” 

The political damage that has been done to news media can't be underestimated. Trump has consistent applause lines in referring to journalists as "enemies of the people" and noting "fake news."

Both Trump and 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonVideo of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Ronan Farrow exposes how the media protect the powerful Kamala Harris to Trump Jr.: 'You wouldn't know a joke if one raised you' MORE made changes to the First Amendment part of their campaigns in 2016. Trump proposed making it easier for public figures to sue media for damages, presumably eliminating the historic protections in the landmark Supreme Court decision in Times v. Sullivan in 1964. Clinton bought into the notion of changes that might overturn the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. Neither proposal had any chance of becoming reality, of course, but playing to the political base is now more important than discussions of substantive issues.

The fact that major political candidates and the dominant political parties are even discussing First Amendment changes shows how little regard exists for the protections and rights considered a foundation of our liberty. Not to mention a lack of respect for the role of the press as a check on government. 

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But the threats to the free flow of information and access to government didn't begin in 2016. We shouldn't forget that the Justice Department under Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderAmash: Trump incorrect in claiming Congress didn't subpoena Obama officials We can't allow presidents and public opinion to further diminish the work of the press Democrats sue over North Carolina's congressional maps MORE in the Obama administration seized telephone records of the Associated Press in a leak investigation in 2013. It apparently escaped administration notice that the action violated agreements protecting journalists published by the Justice Department in the 1970s. 

Even earlier, the USA Patriot Act, passed within weeks of the terrorist attacks in 2001, closed off thousands of documents that had customarily been accessible, including many online. The act also provided government with a major loophole for "national security" that made it acceptable for government agencies to deny open records requests. Many state legislatures followed suit in creating new exemptions for security.

All of us appreciate government actions to keep us safe. But many journalists and First Amendment advocates found that the federal Freedom of Information Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, became virtually useless. The Associated Press reported that the Obama administration set records for refusals to the media and the public for information and also set records in tax money spent defending lawsuits over the refusals. 

The track record for the Trump administration is no better and, in many cases, worse. Trump has even broken with tradition in refusing to release his tax returns. Transparency in the Trump White House seems more or less limited to opinions expressed on Twitter.

Overall trust in the nation's news media remains low, according to recent Gallup polling that has tracked the confidence level since 1972. Only 41 percent of people surveyed have "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of confidence in news media to report events fairly and accurately. When political views are considered, the data are even more troubling. Among Democrats, 69 percent have confidence in the news media; among Republicans, only 15 percent have confidence.

The "echo chamber" effect of news consumption has also been made clear in polling by various organizations. Conservatives have their news sources, and liberals have theirs. Watching the same story on Fox News and CNN is often like watching news from two different planets. We seem to want only news that confirms what we believe.

Congress fares even worse than the news media in polling of confidence levels. As the impeachment process focuses on the House, Americans are sure to have even more sharply divided opinions about government and the news media. The charges that Trump asked a foreign government to investigate a political opponent are serious and deserve serious consideration from the Congress and serious, factual reporting from the nation's news media. Don't count on the public having much confidence in either.

Tony Pederson is professor of journalism and holds The Belo Foundation Endowed Distinguished Chair in Journalism at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He is the former executive editor of the Houston Chronicle.