Editorial: The best response to attacks on journalism is more journalismPhoto from Decaturish reader Ben Stuenkel
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Over the weekend I had dinner with a friend of mine who is a Trump supporter.
I know this is the line where a lot of my liberal friends have said “unfriend me now.” I choose to live in a world with differences, even if they’re stark and uncompromising ones. Whether you want to deal with it or not, Trump supporters are part of America, too.
We didn’t talk about politics much, but at one point we stumbled into that conversation. He said, “You know what I like about Trump? He doesn’t play the game.”
That was a new insight for me. That’s true. He doesn’t play the game. But he’s playing a game. It’s a game that president controls and can always win.
Today more than 300 newspapers around the country are playing President Trump’s game, writing editorials decrying his incessant attacks on reporters who don’t flatter him enough. It’s disgusting behavior for a president or any powerful person. It’s not leadership.
But that isn’t the point.
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The president is an epic troll. He thrives off creating conflict and anything that gives him more attention causes him to double down.
When NFL team owners tried to appease him by passing some silly rule about when it’s appropriate to protest systemic racism, Trump just ratcheted up the pressure. Players were told to stand or remain in the locker room. As you may have noticed from his recent barely coherent Twitter ramblings, that hasn’t made the president back off. He’s going to bang that drum over and over because it works for him. Any attempt to placate him inevitably backfires.
And so, it is with newspapers and their editorial boards. At this point, we should consider whether an editorial board has any impact on our national conversation at all. More than 240 daily newspaper editorial boards endorsed Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, even some deeply conservative ones. We know how that panned out.
Newspapers complaining about a president attacking journalists is an attempt to control something they can’t control. Based on prior controversies, we can rest assured that Trump will respond to today’s editorials by doubling down, though it’ll be hard to top calling reporters the “enemy of the people.”
We should also consider the context of the president’s sustained assault on a free press. At the risk of playing the “what about” game, the president’s behavior is not unprecedented.
Nixon’s enemies list contained the names of journalists who crossed him. President Obama prosecuted the bejesus out of people who leaked to the press and limited press access when it suited him. Every president has had a conflict with the media every now and again. Most of the time that’s healthy. If politicians love you as a reporter, it means you probably aren’t doing your job.
President Trump wages war on the press in a way no other president has. It’s corrosive and it’s dangerous. It could very well result in people being killed. No sensible person should be comfortable with it.
But newspapers have done themselves more harm than President Trump’s tweets ever could.
When free online news started cutting into their bottom line, newspapers responded by cutting reporters’ jobs. They eliminated the voices that covered every corner of communities, from the humble Planning Commission meetings to the latest local scandal. Scarcely a month goes by without a headline about a newspaper laying off a huge chunk of its newsroom. For a community newspaper, that’s like chopping off a leg. You simply can’t do more with less. In many cases, newspapers have chosen to go without and in the process have left readers in the dark.
Those decisions happen way above the editorial board level. But if we’re discussing threats to journalism, we should not ignore the most obvious one.
The public is deeply skeptical of the press. Some of that is due to the attacks of not only the president but his sycophants in the right-wing media. But I think the dearth of good local news is partially to blame. When you pick up a newspaper or open a news website and you can’t find the information you are looking for, what good is it? That happens all too frequently and has only gotten worse as newspapers decline. An increasing number of communities have no local newspapers at all.
The newspapers that still exist need to reverse that trend with good, comprehensive local coverage that can’t be found anywhere else. We can’t convert every skeptic, but we can build loyalty by having our readers’ backs when they need us most. If we’re providing information people need, it doesn’t really matter what the president says. People will read it and if it’s true and useful, they’ll keep reading it.
We don’t need editorials. We need more reporters out there reporting.
In addition to committing to run editorials, I wish every newsroom would commit to hiring one more journalist to cover their community, even if it means applying for grant funds or cutting the salaries of managers. The fight for relevance begins at home.
At Decaturish, my goal is to hire another full-time reporter to help me sooner rather than later. As a small company, I have tried to do my part within my means. I have two assistant editors now and a group of capable freelancers. Whenever possible I redirect my finite resources into covering our community.
At most newspapers, whenever the hard choices need to be made it usually means firing more reporters and less news for everyone.
When that happens, the people who loathe the press can do as they please without fear of accountability.
That is unacceptable.
We should make newspapers and news outlets indispensable again. Do that and you won’t have to worry about whether the president says mean things about you on Twitter.
The best way to combat attacks on journalism is more journalism. The president can play his game. We need to play ours.
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