Freedom: 411 papers editorialize to preserve America’s free press

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'This is what we do'

At the end of a long day, Nancy Ancrum, editorial page editor of The Miami Herald, got a note from a former colleague asking why would she sign on with all those newspapers to push for freedom of the press.

Her former colleague, reflecting other naysayers on Thursday’s united editorial effort, asked: Isn’t that exactly what Donald Trump wants, so he can scapegoat the media further? You’re not going to change the minds of Trump fans, she was told.

Ancrum, whose paper is one of about 411 outlets publishing editorials today urging the preservation of America’s free press, says she responded decisively.

“This initiative is not designed to change the minds of the most rabid Trump supporters,” Ancrum tells me, hours before deadline Wednesday. “This is for people who take the First Amendment for granted, who must be more engaged … no matter where they fall on the political spectrum.”

Predictably, the president criticized the effort on Twitter, calling it "collusion" — a term he has faced in an investigation into his presidential campaign's ties with Russia before the 2016 election.

Ancrum notes that editorial boards have timed editorials before, such as, in Florida, on annual celebrations of the state’s open records laws. In April, the editorial boards of the three South Florida dailies synchronized editorials on “The Invading Sea” — a shared project on the region’s challenge from rising sea levels.

“This is what we do,” Ancrum says.

And how controversial is it, really, to defend a cornerstone constitutional freedom? “If we don’t stick up for the First Amendment,” Ancrum says, “who will?”

The show of support mushroomed nationwide in the hours before publication. The number of papers committing to join the initiative rose from 200 on Tuesday to 411 by Thursday afternoon, says Marjorie Pritchard, The Boston Globe’s deputy editorial editor. Pritchard had proposed that America's editorial sections join together, each in their own words to reject the president's oft-repeated scapegoating of the media as "the “enemy of the people.”

In its editorial, the Providence (Rhode Island) Journal says the media, in a disorienting and economically fraught transition to digital platforms, are not blameless. At times, news outlets have focused on the splashy, distracting or ephemeral for “clicks.”

But the newspaper adds that occasional journalistic failings don't excuse irresponsible disrespect for the vital role of journalists as gatekeepers. Demonizing the public's representatives can lead to violence and a destruction of America’s freedoms.

"Presidents, whether or not they are pleased with news reports, should acknowledge and respect the idea that journalists must be free from government control,” the Journal wrote. “They should not be punished for reporting that the government does not condone."

The Kansas City Star’s editorial mentions the mobs Trump stirred up against reporters at rallies and the slaying of five people in a Maryland newsroom last month.

“Trump’s references to us as the 'enemy of the American People' are no less dangerous because they happen to be strategic,” the Star says. “That is what Nazis called Jews. It’s how Joseph Stalin’s critics were marked for execution.”

In a shared editorial, five weekly papers in Vermont write that the poisonous rhetoric damages the good a news outlet brings to a community.

“We promise an honest report of the news; we question authority on the public’s behalf; we look out for the little guy, people who have no power of their own; we try to hold up a mirror to the community so people can see it, flaws and all, and perhaps be moved to take action,” says the editorial, from the Stowe Reporter, Waterbury Record, News & Citizen of Morrisville, Shelburne News, and The Citizen of Charlotte/Hinesburg.

To show that benefit, the editorial cited one of its stories on a food pantry, serving hundreds of local families, that was running out of money. "The next day, a reader handed Food Share a $5,000 check," the Vermont editorial says.

“Informed citizens,” it concludes, “make good decisions.”

Here's a sampling of the editorials running nationwide.

Food pantry rescued after newspaper article
Vermont's Lamoille Community Food Share was rescued after a donor read a newspaper article about its plight (Photo: Glenn Callahan/Stowe Reporter)

The facts

Some critics of the editorial drive see it as a partisan action, and others play down the threats to journalists and press freedom. Here’s part of a brief fact list from Courtney Radsch, a researcher with the nonpartisan Committee to Protect Journalists:

According to CPJ research, in 2018:

  • Four journalists and one media worker have been murdered (at the Capital Gazette)

  • Another journalist, Zack Stoner, was killed in Chicago, but CPJ is still investigating whether the motive is related to his journalism.

  • This is the deadliest year for journalists in the United States since CPJ began keeping records in 1992. At this point in 2018, the United States is the third deadliest country globally after Afghanistan and Syria.   

According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker:

  • In 2018, at least 24 journalists faced physical attacks (ranging from being shoved or having their equipment damaged, to more serious physical assaults). In 2017, at least 45 journalists were physically attacked.

  • In 2018, at least three journalists have been arrested in the United States in the course of their work. In 2017, at least 34 journalists were arrested. Most of the arrests took place during protests in St. Louis, North Dakota, and Washington, D.C.

  • Since the beginning of 2017, the Department of Justice has issued indictments in at least four leak prosecutions. In at least one case, they subpoenaed the records of a journalist.

Quick hits

GIVEBACK: The chief executive of the Financial Times returned nearly one fifth of his $3.3 million salary after employees complained that his pay had swollen to 100 times that of an entry-level journalist. No tears for John Ridding, please, whose move came ahead of an all-hands union meeting on his pay. Ridding’s compensation had risen 25 percent in the past year alone, the Guardian reported. Ridding said the returned money will be used to promote women’s careers and reduce the gender pay gap. Will other media CEOs follow suit?

MERGER: The third and fourth biggest public radio networks are merging, with a focus on the podcasting future. The innovative Cambridge-based PRX, home to This American Life, The Moth, TED Daily and the Radiotopia slate of podcasts, will join PRI, the co-producer of radio news shows The Takeaway, PRI’s The World and Innovation Hub. The merged company, to be based in Boston, will be run by PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman. The deal comes with with a $10 million investment by PRI’s parent company, public broadcasting giant WGBH. We'll be covering the story in greater depth in coming days. 

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