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On the Importance of Protecting the Free Press Environment

Back in our newspaper days we were often forcibly kicked out of various places for being a reporter. Sometimes it was at fringe group rallies, other times it was at ghetto crime scenes we’d arrived at after the cops had split, and on one memorable occasion it was at a “gay rodeo” that apparently had gotten some previous bad press from more homophobic reporters than ourselves. Until the age of President Donald Trump, though, we’d never heard of a reporter being evicted from a governmental agency’s public meetings.
That actually happened to three reporters on Tuesday, as they attempted to cover the Environmental Protection Agency’s meeting with industry and regulatory officials on the rather dry subject of water contamination. A reporter for the Cable News Network was barred from the event, as was a reporter for an environmental internet publication called E&E News, and a reporter from the Associated Press was literally shoved out of the building.
The administration’s official explanation for the expulsions is that there just wasn’t enough room to accommodate everybody who wanted in, now matter how impeccable their press credentials, but all the reporters who did somehow get through the door attest that there were far more than three empty seats. The only plausible explanation is that the Trump administration is growing even bolder in its bullying of the free press.
Which is worrisome to our free speech sensibilities, as Trump has been a bully boy toward the press all along. During his surprisingly successful campaign for the presidency Trump promised that he would “open up the libel laws” so that he could sue any reporter reporting embarrassing news and “make lots of money.” During every campaign rally he led his followers in menacing chants against the nervously penned-up reporters in their midst, and forbade certain news outlets from access to to his campaign. As president he’s described the adversarial press not only as “fake news” but also by the Stalin-esque phrase “enemies of the people,” leaned on the Postmaster General to charge a few extra billion dollars to the Amazon e-commerce giant that happens to be run by the guy who also also owns troublesome Washington Post. He’s also “tweeted” about revoking the White House credentials of America’s most venerable news media, prosecuting reporters who report on leaked information, and groused that it’s a “disgrace” that the First Amendment allows a free press to “write whatever they want.”
Perhaps the only American who more resents a free press than Trump is EPA director Scott Pruitt, who has taken some Trump-level pillorying. Part of it is his because of his vigorous-even-by-Trump-standards deregulating, which our old-fashioned Republican souls are mostly but not altogether approving of, but it’s also because of “fake news” but all-too-verifiable reports about the sweetheart condo deal he got from some companies he was supposed to be regulating and his exorbitant spending of taxpayer dollars on air travel and such weird things as the “cone of silence” from the old “Get Smart” comedy, which our old-fashioned Republican souls cannot abide.
Pruitt has also reportedly used the cops’ flashing lights and sirens to get him to unofficial dinner reservations on time, and he strikes us as exactly the sort of guy who would use figuratively and literally rough even-by-Trump-standards tactics to get even for all those verifiable stories. This troubles our old-fashioned Republican souls, and after too many years of daily reporting it outrages our journalistic sensibilities.

— Bud Norman

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All the News That Fits in a Day

Tonight is opening night for our annual amateur theatrical turn in the Gridiron Show, a satirical song-and-sketch revue that the local media types put on to raise money for the lost cause of journalism scholarships. That means last night was an exhausting dress rehearsal, followed by a cast gathering at Harry’s Uptown Bar & Grill, so it’s been hard to keep our usual keen eye on the news.
While working with our news-mongering friends, though, it’s been hard not to notice some worrisome stories about the news business. Foremost at the moment is the Sinclair Broadcasting Company’s attempt to add another 42 local television broadcasters to the 189 it already owns in 89 markets by taking over the Tribune Company’s television markets, which would give Sinclair access to 72 percent of the nation’s households and make it the largest local television operator in the country.
We’re usually not inclined to worry much about media monopolization, as the internet and the proliferation of cable channels and other market innovations a offer wider and more diverse range sources of news than ever, but this is troubling. Sinclair recently made news by forcing all of its news anchors to read from the same script criticizing other media for their biased “fake news,” a criticism frequently made by President Donald Trump, its outlets have a well-earned reputation for bias toward Trump, and there’s worry that it might be meant to curry favor with the Trump appointees on the Federal Communications Commission that has to give approval to Sinclair’s buy-out of Tribune’s local TV holdings.
Sinclair is certainly entitled to its pro-Trump point of view, and there are historically valid reasons why the federal government has the power to regulate over-the-public-airwaves broadcasts, but there’s something smelly about this.
The FCC gets to regulate the rather narrow range of over-the-public-airwaves radio and television broadcast frequencies because the radio stations used to amp up their broadcasts to the point they overwhelmed their competitors, and in the early days of television there were only four players, but even then there was a First Amendment and a broadly recognized understanding that the federal government did not have the right to regulate the content of whatever news any old news disseminator might disseminate. Networks rose and fell, newspapers rose and fell and merged, new news media emerged through some market innovation or another, but somehow the First Amendment always survived.
This time around, though, despite our preoccupations, we can’t help noticing Trump’s thumb on the scale. The president has lately “tweeted” Sinclair is far better than the “fake news” Cable News Network or the even more “fake news” National Broadcasting Corporation, along with his ongoing criticism of any print or radio or televised or internet critics as “fake news.”
At the same time, he’s been especially harsh in his criticisms of the Cable News Network, and “tweeted” misspelled insults against its chief executive officer, who used to head the news department at NBC, where Trump had once had a hit reality show and there expected better coverage. The gigantic media conglomerate that owns CNN is in the process of being sold to an even more gigantic entertainment-and-news media conglomerate, that also requires the approval of several federal regulatory agencies, including the Trump appointees, and that seems to be dragging out more than usual.
The big-media conglomerate that owns CNN is just as constitutionally entitled to it’s to anti-Trump views, as far as we’re concerned, and we don’t see any reason the government should be any more averse to its acquisition by by an even bigger media conglomerate than it should about Sinclair’s acquisition o the once-formidable Tribune company’s holdings. Let Sinclair buy up those local television stations, too, and in any case let the buyer beware.
In the long run we’ll let ┬áthe buyers beware, and after the past few weeks of rehearsal with our fellow local media types we’re heartened that they’ll also do their best.

— Bud Norman