Our View: On journalistic freedom and responsibility

Our View: On journalistic freedom and responsibility
(File Photo)

“Where the press is free and every man is able to read, all is safe.” This statement by Thomas Jefferson has long adorned our Alexandria Times opinion pages, and it’s never been more applicable.

There is no doubt that the press is now under siege, though this battle is multi-faceted and much more nuanced than the current fight between the national media’s “resist” effort and the inflammatory statements and actions of President Donald Trump.

First, taking a broader look, newspapers and print-first journalists have been swimming upstream for decades for reasons that have nothing to do with the current White House occupant. The advent of television, and then the internet, revolutionized not just how people receive news but the entire world economy – and print journalism has been one of the casualties of this technological shift.

According to The Atlantic, print advertising revenues fell by two-thirds between 2000 and 2015, leading many newspapers to shutter and journalists to lose their jobs. In the business world, as in nature, organisms either evolve or die. The newspapers that are doing well have adapted by becoming 21st-century, multi-faceted media companies. It also helps to have a niche, such as that of a community newspaper in a well-educated city.

So journalists are a beleaguered bunch to begin with. As the tragic June shootings at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis showed, journalism is also an increasingly dangerous occupation. It takes courage to be a reporter in this era of easily accessible guns and violent video games.

Newspapers are also being squeezed financially by the rising cost of newsprint. This is a result of fewer newspapers, which has caused plants that manufacture newsprint to switch production to other paper products, such as recycled cardboard. The result of less competition is higher prices.

Ironically, the way in which Trump has most harmed newspapers is not with his words, but with his tariffs. The tariffs he imposed on Canadian newsprint have increased the cost of printing for newspapers by between 10 and 25 percent. In an industry that was already struggling, this is going to be the final blow for many papers if the tariffs are not lifted soon. It’s a fair question to ask whether this harm was deliberate.

And yes, the verbal fight between the president and the media is unseemly, but it’s unfortunate on both sides. The president’s inflammatory and sometimes threatening language toward the media demeans the office that he occupies. It’s unacceptable and must be denounced.

But the national media is also culpable in this fight, and have undermined their credibility with their bias. By being so preoccupied with opposing Trump on every front, they have essentially refused to report on his policies that have been beneficial. These are facts, not fake news: since Trump became president, the economy has grown rapidly, unemployment is down, more people are seeking jobs and the stock market is up – and these are at least in part the result of his policies, such as deregulation and tax cuts.

It’s the job of journalists to report all of the news, not just what fits a narrative we support. Attempted objectivity is journalism 101 – but it’s clear that many journalists need a refresher course. Freedom of the press is vital to the survival of a democratic republic such as the United States, and we in the media need to remember that with freedom comes responsibility.

Finally, Thomas Jefferson had another memorable quote about the press: “[W]ere 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.” Amen.