The Free Press on the Brink

I read in Sunday’s New York Times an “Opinion” piece, entitled “The Free Press Needs Our Help.” https://nyti.ms/32c2wNh where the title is “Independent Journalism Is at Risk. Here’s How to Save It.” The article is co-authored by a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Maria Ressa) and a former NYT chief executive and director general of the BBC (Mark Thompson). Their argument is a familiar one.  It makes a compelling case for its main point: “around the world, independent journalism is on the brink of extinction.”

Their solution is the creation of the International Fund for Public Interest Media that will be funded by governments, foundations and private companies and then make grants to “promising and trustworthy independent news providers worldwide.” Clearly an ambitious undertaking, likely to be challenged by, among other things, the reality that governments in some cases have been the primary force undermining the free press. That said, it’s a good idea.

I was most intrigued, however, by the reference to “trustworthy independent new providers.” What exactly is that? Is there a commonly understood meaning for it? In the United States, how does that concept square with the existence of entities like Fox News, Breitbart, OAN, Newsmax and the others? Not a day goes by that I don’t see someone in social media screaming for the government to “shut down Fox!” That, of course, is not going to happen as long as TrumpPublicans do not control the government and those entities continue to toe the right-wing line with the proper fervor. [There is also the First Amendment, but a second Trump administration faced with (however improbably) an insufficiently sycophantic Fox News would likely have no problem with a direct attack to compel compliance or else].

These random thoughts led me to reflect on certain “realities of American life,” the main one being that if it’s not prohibited, you may, legally, do it. That is one of the root/core principles that govern the American legal and political systems. On the other hand, the “ideal” of total freedom had some dire consequences. Thus, we regulate practices like law, medicine, hair-styling and other occupations who, absent qualifying instruction and demonstrations of minimum [or minimal] competency could make a real hash of things.

Still, even those principles have a fuzzy edge. Some people with doctorate degrees call themselves “Dr.” and mostly no one objects. Most people with doctorates don’t add that appellation outside interactions within their discipline, but some do. It burnishes one’s image in some circles to be known as “Dr.” Mainly, in the U.S., the status of having earned a Ph.D. is added at the end of one’s name, as in ShiningSeaUSA, Ph.D. (or JD for lawyers).

As with all such matters, the history is fraught and complicated. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_(title) if you have time on your hands.

My central idea (at last!) is that in “journalism,” almost anyone can claim the title, regardless of training, certification, experience or, well, regardless of just about anything. Thus, I can claim to be a journalist when I’m covering a protest at the Supreme Court for a potential blog post and who is to say nay? Armed with a camera (Nikon, if you please), and, if needed, a home-made “press badge,” I am indistinguishable from the other “real” journalists who write for actual media like the New York Times and Washington Post.

It occurs to me, then, that we have an opportunity to improve our situation by establishing some criteria of legitimacy for people who want to use the term “journalist.” We could, for example, establish national standards for the use of the term that, like the practice of law and medicine, would sanction persons with demonstrable relevant education and knowledge to call themselves journalists.

I well understand this would be complex and controversial. And, of course, someone (likely someone wanting to be considered a journalist but having neither education, training nor demonstrable knowledge of the field) would bring up the First Amendment. A good argument can be made that the 1A would not be implicated in a proper regulatory system because the requirements do not prevent anyone from speaking or reporting. They would only forbid the unqualified from calling themselves journalists.

I can hear the screams of outrage now, but I think this is an idea worth considering. It would not shut Fox News or Breitbart down, but a properly constructed code of ethics could go some distance to prevent such entities from passing themselves off as journalism. And, by the way, the same goes for the likes of CNN which, over time, has made a practice of presenting right-wing shills as “journalism” when it’s really something else.

This suggestion will not solve the entire problem, which is obviously complex, but this may well be a situation where we should be careful not to make the perfect the enemy of the good.  Something to think about.

 

6 thoughts on “The Free Press on the Brink

  1. shiningseausa Post author

    You may be right and the economic forces facing traditional media are formidable or worse. However, we are on the brink of permanent catatrophic loss of democratic freedoms. Hopefully, we have not passed the point of no return but we are very close. Anything that can be done to “clarify” the relationships among the players seems worthwhile to me.

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    1. shiningseausa Post author

      I was, ineptly perhaps, trying to say that in my hypothetical I had a real camera, not a cell phone. I suspect there are “cell phone journalists” out there who would take umbrage but I have a problem giving professional cred to someone with a cell phone claiming to be a journalist.

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  2. BP

    Fox News might not fit one’s definition of Journalism, but whatever it is, it has First Amendment rights. How do you get around that? The thing is, the framers probably didn’t think in terms of “journalism” or “the media.” To them, I strongly suspect, the phrase “freedom of the press” was pretty much to be taken literally: i.e., anybody with access to a printing press should be free to publish whatever, without prior approval or encumbrance. What people choose to call it is really a separate issue. Whatever label you give it, it’s still protected speech.

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    1. shiningseausa Post author

      Understood. I am not proposing to stop Fox from publishing. I am proposing that they be forbidden from calling themselves “journalists.” I believe that is attainable within the confines of the !A just as we regulate the descriptors used for certain other professions and activities.

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      1. BP

        I don’t think that will change anything. People no longer know or much care about the difference between news reporting and opinion, between a newspaper and a blog, if they ever did. I don’t see much point in trying to regulate what labels we put on these things if the labels themselves have become meaningless. Even under the umbrella brand of a traditional newspaper or news broadcaster, you often find that individual journalists are expected to write signed commentaries, maintain a Twitter feed and publish online blogs–presumably observing different niceties on each “platform.” It is said that the blurring of these distinctions has “democratized” information. Democracy, as we know, is a mixed blessing.

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