It is a delight to be with you this morning.
So for the first 35 years of my career I worked in broadcast news – I began in 1970 as producer, then a White House producer during the Carter and Reagan administrations, later I was the CBS News Washington Bureau Chief and then the Executive Vice President for CBS News in New York. In 1995 I was recruited by Rupert Murdoch to become President of Fox News, before the cable channel was launched, and I left a year later when the newly appointed Chairman of News, Roger Ailes, told me he wanted to create and “alternative news channel.” I told him I don’t do alternative news, and quit. But I later founded and ran Telemundo’s news division. The Spanish language network is based in Miami.
I was inspired to become a journalist by two great CBS News broadcasters, Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. I would later work with Walter at CBS News, then the “most trusted man in America.” I learned that a free press is important for a democracy because it enables the public to make informed decisions. But news organizations were even then under attack from government leaders for their quote “biased coverage” of the Vietnam War, for fanning the flames of the Civil Rights movement, and soon for making up the Watergate scandal, which would bring down President Richard Nixon. These were not easy times for the news media—in fact the Nixon administration ordered illegal wiretaps on reporters, and one of its members told the head of CBS News, “We will break your network.” History would show that the journalists had it right, and their coverage changed public opinion.
One of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, once wrote, “The only security of all is a free press – the agitation it produces must be submitted to. It keeps the waters pure.”
But today we see great polarization in America, not only in the public debate, but also in the consumption of news and information. The explosion of social and online news sources, and the impact of 24-hour news channels that are filled with political opinion, has created communication silos. For instance, the conservative Fox News Channel (Trump’s favorite), or the liberal MSNBC news channel are examples. Many people consume only information that reinforces their own biases, and they seldom hear other views.
Moreover, President Donald Trump is waging an unprecedented attack on the media, as are many of his supporters. Trump calls the media “the enemy of the American people,” or, "among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with", and he regularly decries what he calls “fake news.” His attacks are meant to distract Americans, and to deter and discredit journalists. Regrettably, these attacks are having some impact on the American people as polls show distrust in the media increasing. Worse, The Radio Television Digital News Association reported that there were 44 physical attacks on reporters in 2017. Thirty of those attacks came during the civil unrest in Charlottesville Virginia.
And the consequences of the president’s attacks on the press are felt around the world. The Committee to Protect Journalists says these attacks are “Undermining press freedoms everywhere.” The Committee reported that 262 journalists were in jail at the end of 2017. They report that 33 have been killed so far this year. Some of the toughest world leaders on press freedom are Vladimir Putin of Russia, Xi Jinping in China and Recep Erdogan of Turkey, all leaders Trump greatly admires.
Dean Baquet, the Executive Editor of the New York Times, this past April said, Trump’s attacks “hurts the media. //And I think this is debilitating.” Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron has often observed the attacks have a “corrosive effect on democracy.” In an interview earlier this year he said, “Trump certainly is trying to undermine confidence in our reporting. But we know what our mission is. And our mission is to try to find the truth, to get at the truth. And that's what we try to do every day.” CNN’s President, Jeff Zucker, who is a frequent Trump punching bag, told a business conference earlier this year, “The one thing I know for sure is that Donald Trump has made American journalism great again.”
In fact, the Washington Post, The New York Times and many other news organizations have done award-winning journalism on the Trump administration. The Washington Post regularly tracks Trump’s penchant for lying. So far they have recorded more than 3,500 false or misleading statements by the president since he’s been in office, that is about seven each day. The problem is: Trump’s core supporters don’t care; they know he lies. Another problem is that members of the president’s Republican Party refuse to correct or challenge his lies. The problem is: that the Fox News Channel peddles the president’s misleading statements as fact. Its viewers are fed alternate facts and live in an alternate reality. And Trump plays to the biases and fears of his core supporters.
Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon told author Michael Lewis, “The Democrats don’t matter—the real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with (crap).” There has never in U.S. history been a shrewder president when it comes to dominating the day’s news, and getting his unfiltered message directly to the people.
By contrast, I remember dealing with President Reagan and his administration while I was a White House producer. Their communications operation was very sophisticated, and they were very successful in driving the day’s news agenda. There was a tension, of course, between the media and the White House, but there was a great deal of respect both ways. President Reagan called Freedom of the Press ”a fundamental tenet of American life.”
What can the media do to respond to Trump’s endless attacks? News organizations should do what they do best, provide original reporting in search of the truth, to hold the government at all levels accountable, to inform the public and to serve as our Founding Fathers intended. News organizations must be open and transparent about their processes; they should immediately correct the record if there is a mistake.
For sure, journalists cannot become the political opposition to Trump—that is a losing strategy. That also runs against the fundamental standards of fairness and transparency that most established news organizations live by. In Marty Baron’s words, “we’re not at war, we’re at work.” And that seems to be a successful approach as subscriptions for both the Post and Times are up.
But the long-term solution is, in part, to educate young students about the essential role the free press plays in America, and to give them insight into how a quality editorial process works.
Another step would be to get thought leaders and politicians to defend the role of a free press, to explain that mean-spirited and frivolous attacks on the press only undermine a core value of this country. Republican Senator John McCain in his op-ed piece in the Washington Post earlier this year wrote, “While (Trump) administration officials often condemn violence against reporters abroad, Trump continues his unrelenting attacks on the integrity of American journalists and news outlets. This has provided cover for repressive regimes to follow suit.”
Today, the media is experiencing rapidly changing business models that have resulted in a dramatic shift of subscribers and advertisers to other news platforms. Meanwhile technology has made it possible for users to access content anywhere and at anytime, and for anyone to be a publisher. We now live in a 24-7 news cycle in which the news deadline is right now! No wonder everything is now labeled “Breaking News” as outlets compete for viewers in a media environment saturated with choices. Each of these is a serious challenge for the news media, and must be met head-on. But nothing would be more devastating than the loss of a free press.