Journalists: Champions, not enemies, of the people

The National Council of the Society for Collegiate Journalists, led by President Andrea Frantz, Ph.D., is glad to join the Boston Globe and the hundreds of other news organizations issuing a reminder today about the value of a free press in America.

How did we go from widely recognizing journalist Walter Cronkite as “the most trusted man in America” in 1967, to vilifying the entire field of journalism as “the enemy of the people” in 2017?

To fully answer that question would require a deep, book-length dive into cultural, political, economic, and technological change in the United States over those 50 years.

But the short answer to the question is that we didn’t.  President Donald Trump did.

So perhaps the better question, at least for this editorial, is not how did we get here, but why?

Journalists have long served as essential to the checks and balances necessary for American democracy.  Where would we be without those who tirelessly ask questions of process and policy, and who all-too frequently put themselves in harm’s way in order for Americans to see and hear historic moments that inevitably impact our daily lives?  Put another way, without journalists, could we trust elected officials to provide us with the unvarnished truth behind their motivations and votes?

James Madison knew the answer to that last question was an unequivocal, ‘no,’ which is why, when he penned the First Amendment, the press became the only profession named in the Bill of Rights. The Founding Fathers all recognized that without a free press, democracy would fail.

But with that stroke of a pen, journalists simultaneously donned a mantel of responsibility that would not always make it popular with the people, and most assuredly not with politicians.  As watchdog, the American press has a duty to ferret out truth, even when truth is ugly.  And when truth is ugly—as it so often has been in our history—elected officials naturally fear for their own job security, and in some cases, legacy.  As evidence of this fraught relationship, we need only look at Thomas Jefferson’s shift from champion of a free press to detractor after his presidential campaign produced less than flattering reports. “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers,” he famously opined.

So, yes.  The love-hate relationship between press and politics is real.  When press does not play the role of public relations promoter—indeed, as it never should—those who want only the rose-colored view of reality will be uncomfortable.  And with discomfort comes occasional anger.  We get it.  And we can take it.

But even President Richard Nixon, whose corrupt administration was ousted by investigative journalism, recognized journalists for their contributions to American democracy.  Of the 29 journalists to receive the nation’s highest honor for civil service, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, ten of them were awarded by Nixon.  The award recognizes, “meritorious contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”  And one would be hard-pressed to find a stronger statement of the level of public service journalists give to the United States than the Journalists Memorial wall at the Newseum that commemorates over 2,000 journalists who lost their lives reporting the news. Hm.  ‘Enemy of the people,’ you say?

President Trump’s name-calling and Twitter-rants may well have successfully coined the term “fake news,” but the fact is, students don’t seem to be buying his vilification of the media campaign.  According to an article by Adam Harris in The Atlantic earlier this month, students across the nation are indicating a renewed interest in journalism.  Top j-schools such as Columbia, USC Annenberg, and Northwestern, among others, are seeing a hopeful uptick in applications.

Additionally, though administrators have actively sought to censor some, we’re also seeing high school student journalists taking important steps to report on critical (read: uncomfortable) social and political issues. And student journalists aren’t taking the censorship attempts lying down. After students pushed back and public scrutiny escalated, a Texas high school principal reversed his prior review rule for Prosper High School’s newspaper, Eagle Nation Online earlier this month.  In another example, according to a recent Student Press Law Center article, Grace Marion, a 2018 graduate of Neshaminy High School in Pennsylvania, even went so far as to boycott her own graduation ceremony in protest over administrative censorship of school’s newspaper, The Playwickian, while she was editor-in-chief.

There are countless examples of this sort of leadership among those who will be the future of this nation’s press, despite the barrage of insults emanating from the White House. Such perseverance is setting an example for all of us.

Student journalists should double down in their efforts to make a difference in their communities with hard-hitting, ethical, watchdog journalism.  The Society of Collegiate Journalists tips its hat to the pros and soon-to-be-pros for tenacity and important contributions to a stronger democracy. As Walter Cronkite once said, “Journalism is what we need to make democracy work.”  Journalists are, in fact, champions—not enemies—of the people.

Andrea Frantz, Ph.D., is professor of digital media at Buena Vista University, Iowa. Frantz is President of the Society for Collegiate Journalists and a passionate advocate of the First Amendment.