United States


IAPA Midyear Meeting 2018

Medellín, Colombia

The report six months ago at our meeting in Salt Lake City began with the words: ''The news media remain on the defensive against President Donald Trump's strong, anti-press rhetoric....''

Damaging and un-presidential rhetoric certainly continues, but the 2018 story may be that media are responding aggressively to political harassment – and, making headway against technological, social media and industry trends that sometimes overshadow their efforts to produce original, local, investigative, and government-accountability journalism.

The big picture is that quality journalism happens every day despite distractions like the supposed clash between real and ''fake'' news.

And despite the president time and again singling out major news outlets – or particular stories, or individual reporters - for criticism whose purpose seems intended to advance his political agenda.

Here is a recent (April 5) Trump ''tweet.''

''The Fake News Washington Post, Amazon's ''chief lobbyist,'' has another (of many) phony headlines, ''Trump Defiant as China Adds Trade Penalties.'' WRONG! Should read, ''Trump Defiant as U.S. Adds Trade Penalties, Will End Barrier And Massive I.P Theft.'' Typically Bad Reporting!''

What's unnerving is that disparagement from on high happens repeatedly, is patently untruthful or de-linked from facts; yet may be accompanied by changes in government policy such as a crackdown on ''leaks'' (unauthorized disclosure of information) and other efforts to undermine the public's right to know.

What's encouraging is that news outlets, media foundations, watchdog groups and others push back.

Trump denounced the new book, ''Fire and Fury: Inside the White House,'' which portrays him unfavorably, and tried to use libel law to stop its release. Possibly because of the free publicity, it became an instant bestseller.

He blocked several individual users' access to his Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump, because their own ''tweets'' annoyed him; then promptly was taken to federal court (his lawyers, anyway; not himself) for allegedly infringing on citizens' constitutional free-speech rights.

At the recent ''presidential'' Fake News Awards (Jan. 2018), The New York Times, CNN and other leading media were held up to ridicule for purported news reporting gaffes. Immediately after, the awards were fact-checked by news organizations and some found to be distorted.

Far from being cowed, news media relentlessly review Trump's political agenda and mercilessly caricature his mannerisms, foibles and persona, including his pompadour hair style and orange-blond color.

''We cover him the way we feel any president should be covered,'' The Washington Post's executive editor Martin Baron said in a recent published interview (NYT, April 2).

The fact that The Post is owned by the online retailer does not mean that the newspaper is its lobbyist, he added. ''It's completely made up.... There isn't anybody here who is paid by Amazon.... Not one penny.''

Meantime, CNN and other news outlets' advertising revenue are on the upswing while The New York Times is adding 100,000 digital subscribers every three months, ''building very nicely'' on, among other things, the high-profile presidential attacks, CEO Mark Thompson recently told the publication Marketing Week.

On the front lines, so far this year 7 U.S. journalists have been attacked, 1 arrested, 7 subpoenas were issued for journalists and equipment seizures happened twice, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker which documents such incidents.

For 2017, those numbers were 34 arrests, 45 physical attacks on journalists, and 15 equipment seizures, according to the coalition of journalism organizations that produce the Tracker data.

Those atypical events prompted the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), joined by the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), to hold meetings with members of Congress, a federal judge and other officials last Feb. 5-6 in Washington, D.C. to make the case that U.S. news media are under threat and merit support.

Attacks on journalists and journalism inverted ''long-standing assumptions about the place of our country in the world,'' Bruce Brown, RCFP executive director, told Time magazine (Feb. 5 publication), meaning: those used to happen someplace else.

Brown added, ''It has been evident for some time that the story that matters going forward is not Trump's, but ours. No president gets to jail journalists or reopen libel laws on his own.... Freedom of the press is ours to save, not Trump's to burn.''

In other areas where freedom of expression and news media intersect, Facebook announced this year that it will strengthen privacy safeguards. That follows the Cambridge Analytica scandal in which the British consulting firm acquired personal data from as many as 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge, and used that data to promote political campaigns.

In the face of intense media, public and political scrutiny, the world's largest social media network now is taking steps to block ''millions'' of fake accounts and impose stricter requirements on its advertisers to prevent the recurrence of interference in elections by ''bad actors'' (like Russia) such as happened during the 2016 balloting narrowly won by Trump.

Facebook now will also fact-check stories on its news feed, working with credible media such as The Associated Press. AP says the cooperation will ''identify and debunk false and misleading stories related to the U.S. midterm election that are circulating on the platform.''

AP also is fact-checking Twitter, the public service and news media need for which is high-lighted by the following example.

Following the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a Florida high school, Miami Herald reporter Alex Harris tweeted at several survivors, seeking comment. In response, a Twitter user put out fake, misrepresentative tweets designed to appear as if they came from Ms. Harris and the newspaper. The false tweets went viral.

''Around the same time, someone mocked-up an entire MiamiHerald.com story page warning of another school violence incident that was also widely shared on social media,'' the newspaper reported. The point of the misrepresentation was to make the Fake News appear real.

At a time of technology upheaval and business transformation, media are very helpfully supported by tens of millions of dollars every year from philanthropies that fund research on issues like artificial intelligence, augmented reality, data mining, and cyber security. And, to develop viable commercial models to replace print or broadcast advertising.

A media watchdog, NewsGuard, launched in March with $6 million in raised capital and plans to review 7,500 news and information websites across the country; then rate them as reliable, or unreliable, in terms of content accuracy.

Reporters will be hired ''to apply basic common sense to a growing scourge that clearly cannot be solved by algorithms,'' co-founder and media entrepreneur Steven Brill explained.

Website ratings by November are crucial because many voters get their news primarily from social media which ''makes all news brands – both legitimate and fake – look the same,'' noted Alberto Ibarguen, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, speaking recently at a Knight news panel.

It's hard for this report to assess whether positive activity equates to actual progress regarding freedom of press and expression because benchmarks for objective comparisons are few.

In important cases, whatever side one claims, opponents every bit as convinced (and convincing) may stake out and reasonably defend an exact opposite position.

The Justice Department is trying to block the merger of Time Warner Inc., which owns CNN, to AT&T Inc.; which claims selective enforcement of anti-competition laws amounts to bias based on the president's public criticism of the cable news network.

Last December the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to repeal its net neutrality rules for Internet providers. That may result in apps being blocked, as critics already allege, or clients charged based on upload/download speeds (no longer uniform rates) – possibly favoring one client over another or limiting user access.

Yet the stated goals of the repeal are worthy: deregulation, increased competition, better customer service. At this point no one can predict the outcome of the looming clash between telecommunications giants like Verizon vs. technology companies like Google and Facebook.

Also late last year, the FCC relaxed or eliminated requirements that limited the number of television stations a single company could own. That may result in a loss of reporting jobs, less diverse editorial voices, and less local news, as critics allege. Or, different outcomes may happen.

A test case is Sinclair Broadcast Group's bid to buy Tribune Media's dozens of TV stations. Sinclair already is the nation's largest owner of broadcast TV stations. This month (April) the politically conservative company required its news staff at multiple local stations to read the same promotional material criticizing rival media for publishing ''fake stories without checking the facts first.'' Critics cried foul.

These developments during just the past few months amount to a call to action and vigilance regarding freedom of press and expression, and news media are in the vanguard, informing their audiences.

''The very concepts of fact and truth are under assault ... by a concerted and constant and very serious attempt to discredit and disqualify the voices of the news media,'' the chairman of the Pulitzer Board, Eugene Robinson, said last month (CJR, March 28, 2018).

The annual prizes for America's best journalism will be announced in mid-April, taking the Pulitzers into their second century; an occasion Robinson said might usefully be marked by increased attention to defending journalism and advocating freedom of the press.

In sum, though the president suggested the FCC might challenge broadcast license renewals, that the Justice Department should actively investigate the disclosure (''leaks'') of government information by news media, that news organizations should fire specific reporters, fortunately most of that did not come to pass.

As stated in the conclusion of the Press Tracker report, ''The judiciary as well as press freedom allies in Congress and the executive branch are poised to continue to serve as a powerful check on attempts to unlawfully regulate or punish the news media.''