Protecting our free pressThe vital importance of the fourth estate
The world of the media was turned on its head Friday afternoon when several news organizations, including The New York Times, CNN, Politico and The Los Angeles Times were prohibited from attending that day’s off-camera White House press briefing. When asked why certain outlets were excluded, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said they planned to “push back” against news stories that they considered to be inaccurate. This led many to assume that these media outlets were singled out for a particular reason.
A situation like this between the White House and the press hasn’t happened before, at least not in recent times, where certain media organizations were purposely excluded from a meeting being held specifically for the press. Afterward, several reporters who were allowed to attend shared their information with those who were barred.
Although I can’t speak to how journalists at these organizations must have felt when they heard this news, I imagine it was somewhat similar to how I felt as a member of the press. I was infuriated. The situation wasn’t only shocking; it felt like a personal attack on the work many of my colleagues and I do every day. This wasn’t simply an attack on a few elite news outlets; it was pointed at journalism as a whole.
Any reporter I have ever had the pleasure of knowing has an extreme dedication to the truth. They take their work and those they report on seriously. Most of us who work in the media see what we do as a public service. Being in news isn’t just what we do, it’s very much a part of who we are. And to see our work being flagrantly labeled as “fake news” isn’t only disheartening, it’s very, very scary.
For the organization for which I work, Aspen Public Radio, the news of this selective press briefing came during one of our busiest times of the year: Winter Pledge Drive. We have drives twice annually: one in the summer and one in the winter. During this time, we come on the air and make a pitch to our listeners for why they should support the service we bring them. Pledge drives are always a hectic time in the office, but they also bring the staff a great deal of honor. They remind us why we put in hard hours for a public media organization. We do it because we believe in fair, unbiased news and the protection and support of a free press.
Whether we are focusing on public media or outlets that work under a for-profit model, the function of a free press, as in not controlled by the government, is vital in our society. Many people refer to the media as the fourth branch of government, or the fourth estate. This is because our democracy simply doesn’t work without it. As The Washington Post recently added beneath its logo on its website: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” If we don’t have the media to provide checks and balances and help inform the people, then we will have a public that is kept in the dark, which threatens our civil liberties.
Sadly, the press has been under a great amount of scrutiny in recent years. According to a recent Emerson College study, as well as a Fox News poll, more Americans trust the White House administration than the press. This notion of “fake news,” this trend of hashtagging things like #banCNN on Twitter, is incredibly harmful to our political system. That’s because it’s difficult to agree on issues when we can’t even understand what the facts are. By calling something “fake” or “untruthful” we are undermining its integrity, we are questioning its motive and we are disregarding the message it’s trying to convey. It’s a lose-lose situation, and it must stop if we hope to ever heal the division in this country.
So, how can we each take strides to stop it? We can stay informed about current events. We can also support the media outlets that we find credible and reliable. That can be done by donating to local public media stations or by purchasing a subscription to a newspaper, news site or news magazine. It may seem like a small feat, but it makes a huge difference.
It’s our job as citizens of the United States to protect the rights of a free press. And not only protect, but support them. Without doing so, we lose the foundation that our nation was built on.
Barbara Platts is the digital content manager for Aspen Public Radio. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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