While there has always been skepticism toward journalism, things changed in 1969. That was when the right wing war against our profession was launched by President Nixon and Vice President Agnew. What had been fair and legitimate criticism of journalism from which we learned and improved became decade after decade of a systematic, relentless and sustained attack that continues now and is intended to discredit the messengers, not reform them.
It’s a cliché to say that opinion belongs only on the editorial page and that news should be objective. Among those who disagreed with that notion were the founders. The first amendment was written by the first Congress to protect newspapers that spoke for politicians and political parties, that were subsidized by them, that served a point of view, and that were often vitriolic and unfair to politicians—and, at times, to each other. Early Nevada newspapers on the Comstock lode and other mining booms fit that model, being subsidized by players like Adolph Sutro and William Sharon, and their newspapers often attacked each other, producing useful and educational dialogue.
And that founding Congress believed if the press was left free to continue that way, the public would be well served. That is not to say they trusted newspapers, other than their own. “Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle,” Thomas Jefferson wrote.
Jefferson could be caustic: “The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.” But he also said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
This week, newspapers are running editorials defending a free press against the continuing GOP war on journalism, now commanded by Donald Trump. We are not wild about joint actions by journalism entities, but we are also not wild about the pack of lies masquerading as healthy criticism.
Newspapers are in decline. Television is not picking up the slack. Indeed, most television stations have cut back on their operations, resulting in a lot of maps, computer generated graphics and viewer photos instead of television reporters and photographers who work beats in the field. This is a great time for public officials to engage in graft because journalists likely won’t notice.
Which is certainly what Trump is doing. When he’s not pitting us against each other or watching Fox News or posting reckless and angry tweets, he’s piling up new wealth from being president as no president has ever done. And there is no way to tell that story objectively.
And while journalists gave up on correcting Ronald Reagan’s many innocent mistakes, our colleagues are relentlessly correcting Donald Trump’s deliberate lies.
But it is not just Trump we need to worry about. It is county commissioners, state treasurers, improvement district trustees—as journalism declines, so does accountability, the kind of accountability the founders wanted to encourage, the kind Finley Peter Dunne described when he wrote that a newspaper “comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable."Ω