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.