CJR Editor addresses Congress

July 24, 2017

Dear Members of the Committee,

My name is Kyle Pope, and I am the Editor and Publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. I very much appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today.

CJR has been around since 1961 as both an advocate for and a watchdog of the press. Over that half century and more, we have seen moments when the press has been revered and honored in this country, and moments when its reputation has suffered. We have seen great and noble work by journalists here and around the world, and we have seen embarrassing blunders and lapses of judgment.

But what we have never seen, until now, is an attack by a sitting US president on the press’s very role as a democratic institution.

This is new, it is dangerous, and it has resulted in a sharp increase in threats against the American press and its work. Our job as members of the press is to highlight why this approach is at odds with hundreds of years of American history, and to show how it will make it harder for Americans of all political stripes to stay informed and make smart decisions about the policies that affect their lives.

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But first, a reminder of how we got here. For more than a year now, candidate and now President Trump has made a war against the press a central plank of his public persona. He has called us enemies of the American people, dishonest, liars and crooked and failing. He has singled out individual journalists for ad hominem attacks and declared entire news organizations to be working against America’s interests.

We can’t ignore that he was helped in that effort by the media’s coverage of the 2016 election, when many outlets simply missed the biggest story of the campaign, failing to understand the size and intensity of the electorate that would bring Trump to power. In addition, many national news outlets broke decades of tradition and practice in the run-up to the election and took on a much more aggressive and even partisan approach to covering Trump, a tactic that fed his supporters’ suspicion that the media was biased against the president.

But Trump’s media attacks didn’t end with the election. If anything, it’s intensified since he’s been in office, often in proportion to the number of scandals plaguing the White House. As Trump has struggled to deliver on the policy promises he made during the campaign, his war against the press has become his single most coherent ideology; the one point on which he can reliably connect to the base that got him elected. It is his default approach to governing.

But let’s be clear: Donald Trump’s attack against “fake news” is, in one very important sense, fake. Throughout his life as a public person, Trump has shown that he desperately craves media attention, and has become a master at cultivating it. New York City tabloid reporters will tell you how obsessive he was about his media image, even pretending to be his own PR rep calling reporters to pitch stories about himself. Now, as president, the same week he tries to demean The New York Times on Twitter and elsewhere, he sits down with its reporters in the Oval Office and makes clear how much he’d like to do it again.

If that were the end of the story, we could largely dismiss Trump’s sham press war and move along to more important things.

Unfortunately, it has not ended there. President Trump’s attacks on reporters, despite the dishonesty at their core, are starting to have real effects in the real world.

CJR, along with other organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists, has worked in recent months to track increases in attacks against the press, both here and around the world. The number of incidents is startling, and they range from name-calling—like the governor of Texas joking about shooting reporters—to actual gunfire being aimed at a newsroom in Kentucky and a reporter in Montana being assaulted for questioning a candidate for Congress.

The House Judiciary Committee is looking into threats to press freedoms.Our EIC Kyle Pope will speak. Livestream here:

Posted by Columbia Journalism Review on Monday, July 24, 2017

So while the rhetoric and threats coming from the Trump team are scary enough—loosened libel laws, a war against whistleblowers, the banning of reporters it doesn’t like—what’s even scarier is the message that is trickling down to state and local elected officials, as well as to some of the president’s more rabid supporters. The message is: The press is the enemy; nothing they say should be believed; there is no role or need for them in American democracy.

That is why you see reporters’ home addresses and children’s names now being published by Trump surrogates on the internet. That’s why journalists increasingly are being excluded from public forums around the country. That’s why attacks against the press are climbing overseas, as norms that had been established in the US are increasingly seen as being abandoned here.

What began as a sham war against the press by a media-obsessed president has become something of real danger and real consequence. Our job—yours in Congress as well as ours in the press—is to convey that threat to the American people. We need to look for ways to show that this is not a partisan issue or a fight about this story or that scandal. It’s about whether we care about a functioning press as an important check in our democratic system.

I have written in recent months about what the media shouldn’t be doing if it wants to have that conversation with Americans. It shouldn’t whine every time the Trump administration snubs it, and it shouldn’t always make the story about itself. Every time Trump tweets the words “fake news,” it doesn’t warrant a Breaking News alert or a front-page headline.

Instead, reporters should be focused on the president’s team and his policies, examining his remaking of American government. These are the stories that resonate with Americans, not his views about what’s airing on MSNBC or CNN some Monday morning. We are already seeing some excellent reporting in this vein. We need more.

The lack of trust that now exists between the press and the public didn’t start with Trump, though he certainly has done his part to exacerbate it. It has been building slowly for decades, to the point that the conversation between the media and its readers is broken. Many Americans no longer think the press listens to or understands them, and they long ago started tuning us out. We became part of the establishment that had turned its back on them. These are our failings, and they need to be fixed.

We need to start listening again and reporting the kinds of stories that matter in people’s lives. We need to make it clear that we’re in our readers’ corner, not in the pocket of the source who gave us the tip in the first place. That means fewer stories about the horse race of politics, less inside gossip about who’s up and who’s down in Washington, and, yes, a lot less writing about ourselves and the burdens of covering this White House.

We have our role to play, but so do you. As members of Congress, you can choose to either reinforce the president’s destructive rhetoric against the press, or you can stand up to it. When the president attacks the First Amendment from the Oval Office, or makes sweeping and false statements about some of the most important news organizations in the world, you can hide from it and hope it goes away, or you can speak up, saying publicly, That’s not right, and it’s not what I believe. Quite frankly, too few of you have stood up as we’ve come under attack.

You can support your hometown newspapers and their efforts to report important, accurate information. Local news resources have been decimated throughout the country, for reasons that have nothing to do with Donald Trump. You can help by treating those local outlets as important voices in your communities, including them in your decision making and your outreach. One of the lessons of the 2016 election is that national reporting suffers when there are fewer local reporters on the ground. While you can’t change the business challenges of local news, you can do everything possible to support the local reporters in your districts.

And, finally, you can look for ways to bridge the trust gap between the media and your constituents. Encourage town hall meetings that sit reporters down with readers who mistrust them. Write op-eds encouraging readers to tune out the Washington rhetoric and actually listen to what their local journalists are reporting. Distance yourself from the claims of “fake news” that you know are untrue.

As you do your part, so will we, reporting to keep journalism honest, advocating for a free and open press, and reminding media consumers why the actions of this president to discredit the American press will ultimately affect them, too, in the form of less accountability for elected officials, less transparency on important policy decisions, and less light on areas of government than should not be kept secret.

Thank you for your time and attention this afternoon.

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Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.