Politics, public image and the press

By on December 4, 2018

From national news outlets to student media, the tension between journalists and the governing bodies they keep in check has seemed to have reached a high point. In a country built on free speech and free press, President Trump’s battle with CNN, as well as educational institutions’ conflicts with vocal students and staff, reveal the fight that journalists on many levels are undertaking to ensure their rights.

Some of the most well-known clashes have involved the federal government, particularly during Trump’s time in office.

President Trump has been a long-time critic of mainstream media, especially the more liberal news outlets, tweeting on multiple occasions that they are the “enemy of the people,” as the New York Times observed. This distaste came to a head in the White House’s news conference on Nov. 7, when CNN’s Jim Acosta attempted to ask a follow-up question concerning the ongoing Russia investigation.

“I am not concerned about anything with the Russian investigation because it is a hoax,” replied Trump. “That is enough, put down the mic. I tell you what, CNN should be ashamed of themselves having you working for them.”

Shortly after the press conference, Acosta’s press pass to the White House was revoked, though later restored after CNN sued the White House and the U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Kelly ruled in their favor based on a violation of Acosta’s Fifth Amendment right to due process.

“The President’s ongoing attacks on the press have gone too far,” CNN said in a statement on Wednesday. “They are not only dangerous, they are disturbingly un-American. A free press is vital to democracy and we stand behind Jim Acosta and his fellow journalists everywhere.”

This ruling represents a slight shift in the balance of the scales between the press and the President and has received an outpouring of support from other news organizations. However, the White House has attempted to regain ground by establishing a set of rules for future news conferences. Essentially, they ensure that reporters will only be allowed to ask “a single question” – no follow-ups will be permitted.

Though America has yet to see how the new regulations will play out, speculations have been made that the fight for a free press is far from over. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press legal director Katie Townshend expressed her concern to Variety.

“The way [the rules] are written leaves wide open the possibility that the [White House] will use them as an excuse to avoid answering questions it does not like, or — as it did with Mr. Acosta and CNN — to punish particular reporters and news outlets based on what the [White House] views as unfavorable coverage of the administration.”

This could prevent media outlets from performing their watchdog role in relation to the government, which 42 percent of Republicans and 89 percent of Democrats feel “keeps political leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done,” according to a 2017 Pew Research poll.

“The media, on any level—whether that be through major news outlets, local news, newspapers, or even social media—is meant to bridge the gap between the citizens and people of higher profile, namely the government, and should be used as an informative source,” Quinnipiac University Democrats president and sophomore political science major Gina Divito said.

However, even student media outlets have experienced struggles with ensuring their right to inform the public.

“What we’re seeing is the convergence of two worrisome trend lines,” Student Press Law Center director Frank LoMonte said to The Atlantic. “Colleges are more obsessed with ‘protecting the brand’ than they’ve ever been before, and journalism as an industry is weaker and less able to defend itself than ever before.”

A recent case at Butler University in Indianapolis is just one recent example of this. Butler University newspaper advisor Loni McKown, a long-time professor at the university who had helped the paper rack up multiple national awards, was unexpectedly removed from her position in 2017. Having adopted a management style that allowed the students to publish what they wanted, she was replaced by a public relations expert appointed by the university.

The conflicts that Butler has seen are not uncommon. Similar controversies have unfolded at Northern Michigan University, Auburn University, Fairmont State University and countless other colleges and high schools across the country.

“College students and young people in general have the potential to really impact and cause change within the government,” said sophomore journalism major Alexis Rossi. “I believe student media is vital because it allows the spread of information among a group of people that have only recently been allowed to vote.”

Though more states are beginning to adopt laws and programs that protect student journalists, like the New Voices Act and the Save Student Newsrooms initiative, the free speech and free press struggles that continue to unfold are an indicator of the extensive obstacles facing journalists in student and professional media.

“News coverage at all levels is important for several reasons including the current political climate,” said DiVito. “Allowing students to receive news from their peers connects the media to the people on a more personal level and gives sometimes even better insight or different perspectives.”

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