Friday, July 13, 2018

A Free Press

(I delivered the following remarks to a gathering of Fullbright Scholars from around the world at New York University on July 12.)


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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.    

Friday, March 9, 2018

Student Profile of Me

A former NYU student of mine at NYU did my profile for his magazine class.  It was all shot at NYU's journalism department.  LINK

Friday, February 2, 2018

Trump Attacks on the Press


For decades the White House press has served the American public as the source for news from the nation’s highest office.   But the emergence of powerful social media tools, such as Twitter and Facebook, allow the White House to bypass the established channels and go directly to the people.  Further, at the same time, unprecedented attacks of the press by President Donald Trump has eroded public trust in the press.  While the White House press has had to adapt to technological changes in the past, and it has endured criticism from many presidents, never before has it been this seriously threatened.   The convergence of these factors raises the question: “Is the White House press obsolete?”  

From America’s earliest days there has been a tension between the president and the press.  President George Washington, who was often angered by the bad press he received, complained of being "buffeted in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers.” [1]    In his second term, President Thomas Jefferson instructed state attorneys general in New England to prosecute newspaper editors for sedition in response to harsh criticism he had received.  He later wrote a friend, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”[2]

But newspapers were the only source of news and information about the presidents for much of America’s history.  They were usually highly partisan and biased in their news coverage and editorial opinions.  In the 1800’s, perhaps no president was more effective in managing his communications with Americans than Abraham Lincoln.   He courted and charmed newspaper editors, and sometimes leaked information to newspapers.   Rather than make a speech or proclamation, or court reporters that waited outside his White House office, he sent private letters to newspapers knowing they would be published.  Lincoln understood the power of public opinion, especially during a brutal Civil War.  In 1858, during his debate with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln declared, “Public sentiment is everything.  With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.”  He continued, “Consequently, he who molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.”[3] 

In the late 1800’s, correspondents stood outside the White House seeking meetings with the president or interviews with his guests as they departed.  Toward the end of the century reporters were allowed to sit at a table inside the building.  Soon they would be allowed to wait in the front lobby where they would use public pay phones to call in their stories.  From this prime vantage point they could observe comings and goings, and button hole visitors. 

When it comes to covering the president nothing is more important that access.   President Theodore Roosevelt was the first to designate office space for the press, and he would often meet with the press, and he instituted daily briefings by his secretary.[4]   Such an arrangement was mostly beneficial to both parties.  The president wanted to get information to the public, and the press wanted the latest information. 

The development of radio offered President Franklin D. Roosevelt an opportunity to speak directly to a mass audience.  Roosevelt conducted 28 fireside chats, the term used to describe the broadcasts, during which he addressed the American people about his New Deal initiatives and World War II.

President Harry Truman became a media pioneer of sorts when he delivered the first televised presidential address in October 1947.  There were only 40,000 television sets in the country at the time, but 40 million Americans listened to the address on radio.  In 1948, Truman became the first presidential candidate to air a paid political ad on television.  Nonetheless, most of the White House coverage came from newspaper beat reporters housed just down the hall in the West Wing. 

By 1960 more than 50 million American households had a television.  This fact was not lost on Senator John Kennedy who would leverage the power of television, as well as his youth and good looks, to win the 1960 Presidential Election.   Kennedy had become the first television president, and the medium disrupted the status quo in the White House press area.  Television was a mass medium that provided a forum for presidents to address unfiltered millions of Americans.   

President Richard Nixon authorized the construction of a new larger pressroom in 1969, which would include space for press briefings, conferences and press offices.  The new press center was built over an indoor swimming pool located down the hall from the Oval Office.  This was prime West Wing real estate and would ensure that the press had close access to the administration’s staff.   This became essential during the Watergate crisis.

The new press center layout featured a podium on the far west end, nearest the communication staff offices that reporters could visit throughout the day.  Dozens of seats we placed in front facing the podium.  A platform for cameras was set up behind the seats.  Each major news organization had a small office in the rear of the press center, or one floor below.  These offices could each accommodate a couple of reporters, who filed their reports by phone or, for radio and television, by microphone. 

President Gerald Ford, who had taken over the presidency when Nixon resigned, found himself on the defensive much of the time, especially after he pardoned Nixon.  Ford considered reopening the pool and moving the press, but his plans stalled when he received the cost estimate.  President Jimmy Carter, who defeated Ford in 1976, seemed to be inconvenienced and annoyed by the press.   His one term in office included a diplomatic success, Egypt and Israel, and many setbacks, oil shortages, inflation and the Iranian hostage crisis. 

President Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election in a landslide.  He was a former television star and California governor who surrounded himself with a sophisticated communications team.  James Baker, White House Chief of Staff, and his deputy, Michael Deaver, were masters at managing the press and the message.  Each day the White House communications team tried to get the press to cover its planned agenda, in order to drive the news coverage.  They paid close attention to the president’s television image, which they knew provided the most powerful connection with Americans.

In 1984, The CBS Evening News aired a segment critical of President Reagan’s budget reported by correspondent Lesley Stahl.  The video she used showed Reagan being presidential.  Shortly after the story aired Stahl called a senior Reagan official.  Expecting he would be angry, she was shocked when he responded favorably.  She asked why.  The official responded, "You guys in Televisionland haven't figured it out, have you? When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. I mean it, Lesley. Nobody heard you."[5] (I was the CBS Evening News senior Washington producer at the time.)

President Bill Clinton’s press secretary Mike McCurry began the custom of televising daily press briefings, which were broadcast live on CNN, the only cable news channel at the time, and by the networks when there was a major story.  The idea was to get the White House’s spin directly to the people.  McCurry would later regret his decision, declaring in 1998,  “It’s performance art and theater of the absurd.”   This was the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which nearly cost Clinton his presidency.

In 2000, President Clinton named the White House press center the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.  Brady was Reagan’s press secretary when he was severely injured during the attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981.   In 2006-7 the press center was remodeled and modernized. 

As the national press became more powerful, administrations worked harder to control the message and the president’s image.  The expansion of cable news channels, and the growing frustration of presidents wanting to get their story directly to the people, led to an increase in presidential interviews with local news outlets.  This would allow administrations to bypass national news channels. 
The advent of social media provided presidents with a new channel with which to directly reach Americans.  President Barack Obama was tagged the “first social media president.”  While President Obama used Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, these services were still relatively new, especially in the early stages of his presidency.

President Donald Trump, who used Twitter effectively during his campaign, communicates often several times a day with his 47 million Twitter followers.    Trump has generally used Twitter to attack his opponents, including the mainstream media, which he regularly calls “fake news.”   Even his supporters have criticized his heavy use of Twitter.  But Trump defends his use of Twitter, for instance, telling the Fox Business Channel in October 2017, “I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you.” 

Trump’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, declared that the president’s tweets were official.  “The President is the President of the United States, so they're considered official statements by the President of the United States," he told reporters at his daily briefing in June 2017.  He noted that the president has 110 million followers on social media, adding, “The president is the most effective messenger of his agenda.”

The president’s extensive use of social media has redefined how White House reporters cover the White House.  The president’s habit of tweeting early in the morning frequently drives news coverage for the day.  White House staff often scrambles to explain to reporters what the president may have meant by his latest tweet.  But Trump knows Twitter gives him an unfiltered conduit to his followers.

Meanwhile, the daily White House briefing has become a show targeted at one person, the president.   The president watches the daily briefing carefully and critiques his press secretary.  Many times his spokesperson has attacked reporters, or offered misleading and false answers to the press.   Press secretary Sarah Sanders once had to admit she was flying without a safety net.  She explained, “I hadn’t had a chance to have a conversation with the president…I went off the information that I had.”

Media critic and New York University professor Jay Rosen responded to the deterioration of the daily briefings with the suggestion that news organizations should send their interns instead of star reporters.  In a post on his site, pressthink.org, he explained, “When I say #sendintheinterns I mean it literally: take a bold decision to put your most junior people in the briefing room.  Recognize that the real story is elsewhere, and most likely hidden.”  He concluded, “That’s why the experienced news reporters need to be taken out of the White House, and put on other assignments.”

Many publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, have done some of their best reporting on the Trump White House from what Rosen calls “outside in.”  They have assigned reporters to cover and investigate stories and issues surrounding the presidency with a great deal of success.   Marty Baron, The Washington Post’s executive editor, speaking at Columbia University in October, said the attacks are having a “corrosive effect on democracy,” and then observed, “The whole purpose of these attacks is to destroy our credibility with the American people, but it’s also to intimidate us.”   

But the shear weight of attacks from the president and his supporters on the press and on Twitter is eroding American’s confidence in the media according to numerous polls.  Facts are being weaponized, news is being spun, and partisan agendas are being advanced at an alarming rate.  Social media is flooding the political ecosystem with alternate realities, Russian bots and disinformation.   President Trump has fueled this disturbing trend, and he has redefined White House press coverage in an unprecedented manner.  The old way old way of covering the president has become obsolete.   

Marty Baron observed, “Trust in the press and trust in the presidency is starting to intersect.  So in a strange way, Trump has brought us together.”   Baron and many other journalists are doubling down on the basics of journalism and original reporting believing it will be validated over the long run.  The American press has journeyed a torturous road throughout this nation’s history.  But this president and these times may be its most difficult challenge.  Hopefully it will again endure. Thomas Jefferson said, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”






[1] Randall, William Sterne, “George Washington: A Life,” Henry Holt and Company, New York, New York, 1997, 491
[2] Jefferson, Thomas, “Jefferson: Political Writings,” Cambridge University Press, New York, New York, 1999, 275
[3] Holzer, Harold, “Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion,” Simon and Schuster, New York, New York, 2015, XXIX
[4] Jacobs, James, “The President the Press, and Proximity,” The White House Historical Association
[5] Stahl, Lesley, “Reporting Live,” Touchtone, New York, NY, 1999, 236.