Gene Policinski Commentary: The First Amendment Was Meant For Times Like Now

Gene Policinski
Gene Policinski, Chief Operating Officer, Newseum Institute and First Amendment Center of Newseum Institute

The Newseum Institute’s First Amendment expert, Gene Policinski, originally published this commentary on August 1, 2018, on the Newseum blog, and has given First Amendment Watch permission to reprint.

Donald Trump is working the old political shell game again — one that journalists must refuse to play and that every citizen should take as a lesson in civics about the real value of our First Amendment.

On Sunday, mere days after a July 20 meeting with the publisher of The New York Times that the White House asked to be “off-the-record,” Trump reversed course and made the conversation public via a series of tweets that ranged from outright fabrication to fanatical claims about the patriotism of journalists and how their work is “putting lives at risk.”

Trump’s Twitter tirade included his old favorites — the now somewhat ancient canard about “fake news” and the more recently invented catch-all for his critics, “Trump Derangement Syndrome” — with the new egocentric concept that somehow bad news about him besmirches the entire nation: “I will not allow our great country to be sold out by anti-Trump haters in the dying newspaper industry.”

Ho-hum. For the handful of journalists assigned to report on the White House, the tweets offered little in substance or creativity beyond the norm — except to welcome Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger as a fellow target in the increasingly combative turf that surrounds the Oval Office.

Journalists, please do not obsess over the president’s tweets — now or later. Put them into the record of his presidency and leave the outrage and chastising to those who deal in such, from cable TV pundits to the editorial pages of those newspapers.

Get back to work covering things that matter to all of us — and not the distracting attacks on your work and our freedoms.

My recommendations for more journalistic attention: Ailing efforts at economic protectionism, tax cuts fueling massive increases in the federal deficit, immigration issues — including the unsettled aftermath of the failed “lock ‘em up” tactic when the president tried to use children as a method of border security — along with things like plans to reduce protections for endangered wildlife and clean air guidelines. “Good, bad?” Tell me the news and let me decide.

And then there is the investigation into Russian meddling in our 2016 elections and the matter of what is being done to prevent this hostile nation from doing it again in 2018 and 2020. And the still to be settled degree to which the Trump campaign welcomed — or even utilized — that meddling to attack its political opponents. Report on it fully — we need to know what happened then and what might happen in the future.

For the rest of us, we should take this latest Sunday outburst as yet another prime of example of something that most of us likely never thought we would really, actually need: protection of a free press from a government seemingly not just hell-bent on countering news it doesn’t like, but working daily to obliterate it from the public sphere.

Trump’s angry tweets included an illuminating reference to the Times and The Washington Post having written “bad stories even on very positive achievements.”  Sorry, Mr. President, but the fawning headlines and chummy column items about your New York social life in the 1980s and 90s don’t make it in the real world of people’s lives or national policy.

Since the United States began, we have expected our journalists to ask the tough — and very often, impertinent — questions we all would ask if we were on the job. “Who, What, When, Where, Why, How” and sometimes, “Why not?” or, “How in the world?”

Those first six, the “Five Ws and one H,” are a long-standing professional guide for those who work in the news business. The last two are more personal, and are the result of nearly 50 years of asking the first six.

Each of them comes from the common sense observation that very little in life that is “good” for some comes without “not so good” for others, that actions and decisions very often involve risk, and that in a democracy, we — the people who, in the end, run this nation — need information about all of that. And, that information should come from a variety of sources, not just government handouts about “very positive achievements.”

Presidents and others before you have tried to void that “the press” part of those 45 words of the First Amendment. Congress tried jailing journalists it didn’t like only a few years after the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791. President Lincoln locked up “copperhead” editors in the 1860s who attacked his policies on pursuing the Civil War and ending slavery. A fearful nation was seduced into a “blacklist” pogrom against writers in the 1950s by an alcoholic Wisconsin congressman, Joseph McCarthy. And President Nixon, even before the throes of the Watergate scandal, had his news media “enemies” list to be targeted by government agencies.

In the end, the public would not let them get away with those shortcuts through the Constitution to satisfy mere political goals.

The First Amendment’s protections of a free press were not intended to simply be nice words on parchment or on stone, or just a handy slogan to be trotted as a matter of pride before a world in which no such protections exist.

No, those were meant to set out a shared freedom that no individual officeholder could remove. Those words were meant for times when our freedom could be put at risk because political opportunism might have momentary appeal over our fundamental values.

The First Amendment was meant for times like now.

Gene Policinski is president and chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org, or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.