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Threats Against a Free Press Harm Us All

By Tim Franklin
Fall 2018
4 Responses

Medill alumna Susan Page, the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for USA Today, remembers well the first time she interviewed candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election.

“He said, ‘Susan, I so admire your work,’” Page ’73 recounted in a panel discussion at Medill late last year. “And I thought, ‘Really?’”

This was, after all, a man whose news diet consists of more cable TV than print and a politician who has called journalists sleazes, “the enemy of the American people” and “third rate.”

Trump’s compliment of Page juxtaposed with his criticism of the news media illustrate a great irony known by Washington insiders: The president privately covets the approval of journalists even as he publicly berates them.

Elisabeth Bumiller, another Medill grad and the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, said at the same campus event that the president’s constant broadsides about “fake news” amount to “politics that plays to the base nicely” and added that “none of us take it seriously.”

But Bumiller ’77 also noted a consequence of the pervasive, hostile rhetoric. “I do have concerns about threats against journalists,” she said. “That is very worrying.”

Indeed, Bumiller is correct. Threats against journalists are on the rise both in the United States and around the world, an alarming trend.

There are even bigger systemic effects from the vitriolic attacks. They’re contributing to an erosion of trust in a free press that is the oxygen of any self-governed democracy. And they’re exacerbating a partisan divide that already has many Americans nestled inside their own filter bubbles, putting “red” and “blue” allegiances ahead of actual facts.

The ripple effects are being felt beyond the Capital Beltway. While surveys show people trust local news outlets more than national ones, there are troubling signs. A Pew Research Center study last year showed a mere 24 percent of Republicans said they have a lot of trust in information they get from local news organizations. That shows this problem is deeply rooted.

Eighty percent of journalists work outside the media centers of Washington, New York and Los Angeles. They’re not players in the D.C. food fight. They cover city councils, community schools, local colleges, crime, neighborhood organizations, small businesses, high school sports and entertainment. 

They mostly do it for modest pay, and they toil against the backdrop of increasing financial pressures spawned by the digital disruption that has shattered their business models. They do it because they believe in the essential missions of connecting citizens in their communities, helping them live their everyday lives and holding institutions accountable. There’s nothing fake about that news.

Their jobs can be dangerous. One local journalist — a cherished former colleague of mine — was murdered in June along with four co-workers in the newsroom of the Annapolis Capital Gazette by a gunman allegedly aggrieved over unflattering coverage in the paper.

Have presidents of both parties attacked the press? Of course. Do journalists share responsibility for the trust problem in news? Of course. Are they “the enemy of the American people”? Far from it.

Tim Franklin is senior associate dean and a professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Before joining Medill in June 2017, Franklin was president of the Poynter Institute, a leading international school for journalists and a media think tank.

tim franklin journalism professor and senior associate dean at medill

Journalism professor Tim Franklin, senior associate dean at Medill. Jenna Braunstein Photography

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Reader Responses

  • Congratulations on the newly designed Northwestern Magazine. It’s modern and engaging. Kudos also on Tim Franklin’s essay about the dangers of Trump’s toxic tirade against journalists and how it endangers them and threatens the very foundation of our democracy.

    Marla Weingarten Chicago, via Northwestern Magazine

  • I live in a modest-sized city. There is only one newspaper; once there were two or more. For every column-inch of actual news, the section is filled out with at least 10 inches of bylined op-ed pieces filled with author-biased adjectives and adverbs, in our case usually purchased from AP. False/fake/junk news! I don’t like ultimately paying for it, have complained about it and don’t read much of it. I find passing it off as news insulting. But it certainly is not an excuse to physically attack journalists!

    Edward D. Henze '50, Albany, Ore., via Northwestern Magazine

  • Let’s try an exercise in empathy for a moment. Picture yourself with one of the world’s hardest jobs in what is arguably the world’s most powerful seat. And the media seem to you to be hopelessly biased against you and what you believe in.

    Now really think about that. Deeply. An analysis of confirms the liberal bias of the media. Your impression about political bias in the media turned out to be substantiated by real data.

    OK, now that your exercise in empathy is completed, can you honestly tell yourself, under such circumstances, that you wouldn’t be tempted to use your powers to fetter “freedom” of the press?

    Are we the public truly free when we continue to be presented with political bias from the media?

    If the press wants to keep its freedom, they are going to need to stop abusing it.

    Chip Reuben '90, Redondo Beach, Calif., via Northwestern Magazine

  • The new Northwestern Magazine is outstanding. From oak trees to Grammy Award winners to groundbreaking scientific collaborations, the magazine continues to amaze me with the accomplishments of Northwestern faculty and graduates. The new format is lively and inviting, and the writing is clear, even when explaining complex scientific theories.

    But for me, the most powerful and timely story was Tim Franklin’s commentary about the threats to a free press [“Threats Against a Free Press Harm Us All,” Voices, fall 2018, page 11]. How prescient that Franklin wrote about the attacks on journalists just before the horrific news about the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi became

    These threats against the media are real, and Franklin is wise to remind all of us of the need to protect our free press. No matter what tribe or filter bubble we belong to, we need to treasure the work that all journalists provide. Their work keeps us informed and connected.

    Arlis McLean Tucson, via Northwestern Magazine

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