Letter from the executive director: How should pubmedia respond to Trump’s attacks on the press?

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Hundreds of newspapers across the country — and many digital nonprofit news organizations — published editorials Thursday in defense of press freedom. These media outlets were exercising their First Amendment rights, claiming their fundamental role in our democracy, and urging the president of the United States to stop calling news media “the enemy of the people.” It was an impressive act of solidarity.

So, where was public media? Covering the story as news, as if President Trump’s irresponsible use of the aptly named bully pulpit doesn’t threaten public media journalism, too.

Public broadcasting stations are permitted to editorialize, so long as they don’t weigh in on elections and endorse candidates. Section 399 of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 had banned all editorializing, but the provision was challenged by Pacifica Radio and overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1984.

Is fear of losing our federal funding buying institutional silence? You could say that it buys our unshakeable commitment to civil discourse. It seems that in this harsh and divisive climate, public media is the last broadcaster standing by the imperative to bring people of diverse perspectives together to talk and to listen. This is a pro-democracy peacekeeping mission of sorts.

Still, it’s hard to remain silent when ethical, sound, courageous journalism is under attack. In a nation of 300 million firearms and widespread mental health issues, the president’s words put our public media reporters and producers and stations in real and present danger.

The president’s toxic rhetoric doesn’t serve any positive purpose. It’s just another example of the shocking disrespect he dishes out to so many different Americans, while demonstrating an unconscionable level of respect for the likes of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un. But public media continues to take the higher ground and treat the president with respect. It stimulates my gag reflex, but I totally get it.

Some historians and survivors of authoritarian regimes have urged Americans to fight what they see as evidence of a growing fascism in our country. Dictators typically blame journalists before targeting them for imprisonment or worse. It couldn’t happen here, right?

So, at what point would public media speak out? The Public Broadcasting Act likely referred only to the use of the public airwaves. In 2018, we all have many other ways of using our voices for good.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

I’m not advocating that public media take any action in particular. But as trusted community leaders, we can at least have a vigorous conversation about what more we can do to best serve the public in these dark times.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial mistakenly said that the Public Broadcasting Act prohibits noncommercial stations from editorializing. That provision was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1984.

7 thoughts on “Letter from the executive director: How should pubmedia respond to Trump’s attacks on the press?

  1. Julie-
    This is an overwrought, hyper partisan, screed that is typically found in alt-left publications. This type of hyperbole can be found in Salon, Democratic Underground, MSNBC, the defunct Air America and Democracy Now where you use to work.

    Unfortunately a large part of public media likely agrees with you.

    • Paul, you are entitled to your opinion and I am entitled to mine. Thank goodness for the First Amendment, democracy, pluralism and diversity. Don’t assume that a large part of public media agrees with me…I certainly don’t, as evidenced by the fact that I wrote this letter in the first place.


  2. The press certainly needs to resist the charge that it is a public enemy. Fortunately, public broadcasting licensees are in fact permitted to editorialize, other than to support or oppose political candidates. While Section 399 originally prohibited editorializing by noncommercial educational stations, that prohibition was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1984 as a violation of the First Amendment. The Communications Act was then amended so that while Section 399 still bars public broadcast stations from taking a position on political candidates, they are not prevented otherwise from editorializing.

    • Agree w Lawrence Miller. The best thinking I’ve heard/read on this topic is to continue to report news in an unbiased fact based way. Don’t be tempted to evangelize/editorialize. My fear is that because of some programming that does tend to editorialize (e.g. some comments above) public media is hurt further by the “lefty” reputation that such content furthers.

      • (Tim?) Why do people think that speaking out in defense of a free press belongs only to lefties? I understand that may be the perception, but it is up to us to educate people that responsibility to protect our constitution, our shared sacred values, belongs to all of us. Why shouldn’t the news media respond to “inciteful” invective such as calling journalists “the enemy of the people?”

        We are not the enemy of the people. We are, however, the enemy of some people to be sure: those who try to hide the truth, consolidate power, violate human rights, pollute our communities, disenfranchise voters, steal public funds, violate laws, manipulate or hurt the most vulnerable in our society. It is the news media’s job to defend our role in a democracy and not wait for others to do so. It’s a matter of ethics, according to Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

        I understand it’s complicated, but I don’t believe that making a defense here is partisan or self-serving. It’s democracy-serving. And in that sense, it’s a public service. And we are supposed to be public service media.

        “This I Believe.”

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