Guest Editorial: Troubling signs behind a new poll on press freedoms
In one of the most frightening poll results yet regarding the swing in public mood influenced by President Donald Trump, a quarter of recent survey respondents, including 36 percent of conservatives, said the president should have the authority to close news outlets “engaged in bad behavior.” Even a sliver of liberals are jumping on the anti-media bandwagon.
This is a troubling sign that Trump’s media-bashing campaign is working and that Americans are losing sight of the important role journalism plays in the survival of democracy. It’s been easy until now to dismiss “enemy of the people” rhetoric as Trump being Trump. But when Americans from across the political spectrum start buying into his exaggerated scapegoating, this nation is in trouble.
Most Americans probably think of CNN or The Washington Post when the president attacks “the media.” But the vast majority of American news coverage consists of local reporting on important governance issues. The Post-Dispatch, just like The Shelbyville News in Indiana or the News-Dispatch in Dripping Springs, Texas, covers school board meetings, crime, sports and local council sessions. Such coverage doesn’t generate profits. We all do it as a service to keep the public informed so taxpayers can monitor how their money is being spent.
Without vigorous watchdog reporting, government officials would be free to spend as they please, to pocket your money when no one is watching and to make sweetheart deals with their friends. Journalists hold them accountable. No wonder some people in power want you to think of reporters as the enemy.
The idea that a quarter of Americans would entertain the president’s empowerment to shut down certain media outlets should be shocking to anyone who cherishes this nation’s constitutional freedoms. If they would so willingly sacrifice a free press, which of the other First Amendment rights — religion, speech, assembly, petition — would be next to go?
An August poll by Ipsos among nearly 900 Democrat, Republican and independent respondents asked dozens of detailed questions about a range of national media organizations. Favorability and trustworthiness ratings range widely. Conservatives are evenly split, for example, when asked about their trust of The New York Times.
Respondents overwhelmingly believe that freedom of speech is a value that makes America great. They believe freedom of the press is essential for American democracy. Most also said reporters should be protected from governmental or big-business pressure.
All that is good. But support dropped off among all groups when asked whether most news outlets try their best to produce honest reporting. Only a minority disagreed that the news media is the enemy.
Obviously, our business has work to do to restore public confidence. But members of the public also have work to do in educating themselves about the dangers and implications behind Trump’s deliberate misinformation campaign.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 20