Gene Policinski Commentary: The White House is Wrong. A Free Press Is ‘The People’

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 March 8, 2018, in the Austin American-Statesman, and then Newseum blog, and has given First Amendment Watch permission to reprint.


An angry U.S. president feels hounded by the news media and is infuriated and discouraged with the intense and personal criticism of his domestic and international policies.

I would suspect virtually all of you read that opening paragraph and thought of Donald Trump – and not of George Washington.

But, in fact, it was our first president who felt the pressure of critics who attacked not just his administration but his personal integrity: A leading newspaper criticized him for a 61st birthday party it said was “monarchical” – apparently, a real political body slam in 1792. A critical press was a major reason he declined a third term, scholars say.

This tension between the White House and the journalists who report on it is neither happenstance nor the product of a conspiracy or even – in modern terms – related to “fake news.”

Even as they faced an openly partisan press, the nation’s founders provided the First Amendment as a constitutional wall, so that a “watchdog” press was free to bring a skeptical eye to the people, policies and purse strings of government.

When Trump called journalists “enemies of the people,” he got it wrong. A free press is “the people” – representing us imperfectly at times and doing its job erroneously on occasion, but in the aggregate providing us with multiple perspectives and holding officials accountable.

Let’s anticipate right here the ready and vocal critics who would say this or that news outlet – or the media in general – “don’t represent me.” Really? In fact, these mistaken souls don’t want news that “tells it the way it is.” They want “news” that tells it the way they want it to be.

Such misplaced, hyperbolic rhetoric is worrisome – but has about as much substance as whatever political pillow talk George and Martha may have had about the rancorous news media of their day.

What we ought to be concerned about is the White House assault on the very idea that a free press ought to even be present, let alone function in that watchdog role.

Yes, the traditional values of journalism – accuracy and fairness, news separated from opinion, reporting on multiple points of view – are challenged in an industry with workforce half of what it was a few decades ago, and an audience siphoned off to social media systems not dependent on any of those values.

The annual State of the First Amendment survey by the Newseum Institute has charted rising public concern about media bias and performance since the late 1990s. But Trump has given such concerns a regular voice – via a Twitter-amplified megaphone – not seen before.

When viewed alone, any one of Trump’s blustering broadsides about the news media – his so-called “Fake News Awards,” for example – typically garners a momentary gasp or a muffled guffaw, and then fades. It’s the regularity, persistence and pervasiveness of these attacks that that should concern us.

Press-presidency conflicts come and go. The nation and a free press have weathered them all. But this feels different. Polls show many of us have lost confidence that we have – or ever will have – a fair and accurate press focused on facts. Far too many of us now live in the proverbial “thought bubbles,” reading or viewing only that “news” that confirms or comports with our own view of things.

A watchdog is of no value if it’s really a lapdog.

Thanks to the Web and, in a terrible bit of irony, to the economic and personal disruption it brought to the old order of news-gathering and distribution, we have such multiple sources of information – multiple watchdogs, if you will – at our fingertips and have unprecedented access — if only we will use it.

Consume news from a variety of source and viewpoints. Keep an eye out for legal changes that replace threatening words with actions, such as wholesale reviews of libel laws making it easier to sue those with whom we disagree.

Demand accuracy, completeness and fairness from the news media sources you do use – and don’t accept or reward political pandering or slavish accommodation to what sells rather than what you need to know.

Loudly and constantly require that journalists do their jobs – but also appreciate when they do just that.