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Sun., March 19, 2017

Jamie Tobias Neely: Trump presidency spotlights media’s vital role

Teaching the next generation of journalists just became a lot more exciting.

My students in Eastern Washington University’s journalism program eagerly follow the debates over the American news media’s coverage of the Trump presidency. Class discussions now sparkle, and each day, as administration policies unfold, students dream up excellent story ideas.

This time reminds me of another era, back when I was a college student myself. That’s when Americans were closely following the reporting of the Washington Post and other national news outlets as Watergate unfolded. Despite Richard Nixon’s attacks on the press, those investigative reporters persisted to uncover the truth.

They became our heroes, and they inspired a generation of baby boomers to go into journalism to likewise serve the American public.

Today we have a president whose words echo that era. Once again, we hear the White House deriding leading news organizations as “the enemy of the American people.”

Recently organizers of a FUSE Washington town hall invited several college professors from the region to make brief statements. I was asked to speak on behalf of a free and independent news media. And so I found myself standing one February evening in front of a crowd of 800 at Riverside Place (Spokane’s old Masonic Temple), directing my remarks toward three members of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ district office.

As I explained that night, my students and a majority of American citizens disagree with the current president’s derision of the news media.

U.S. journalists have made great sacrifices, even given their lives, in the pursuit of truth. The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl and NBC’s David Bloom died reporting on the war on terror.

Locally, if you’ve lived in Eastern Washington as long as I have, and you know about the rise and fall of the Aryan Nations, the pollution at Hanford, the cover-up of clergy sexual abuse and the tragedy of Otto Zehm – you can thank a local journalist.

Recently the president declared he’d inherited “a mess.” That comment drew outrage, but it also held some truth. Each president since George Washington has inherited the messiness of both democracy and the institution of the free press.

Journalism, long known as “the first rough draft of history,” is often reported quickly and written on deadline. Errors and the justified criticisms that result are all part of the process. But professional journalists who want to keep their jobs as well as the trust of their readers know that their calling is to shine a light on the truth – and to admit errors quickly when they make them.

The Fourth Estate provides the American people with the information they need to be self-governing. The First Amendment’s freedom of the press was not designed simply to meet the needs of journalists, but rather the American people they serve.

Each election season, the free press helps citizens decide how to mark their ballots. It provides a forum for public discussion of evolving social norms, such as combatting discrimination, caring for the environment, and extending the rights of women, people of color, sexual minorities, the disabled and the poor.

The free press also holds our leaders accountable. Former President George W. Bush was one of the most widely criticized presidents of my lifetime. Yet on Feb. 27, he declared the news media as “indispensable to democracy.”

“… We need the media to hold people like me to account,” he told the Today show’s Matt Lauer. “I mean, power can be very addictive, and it can be corrosive, and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere.”

More elected officials, including McMorris Rodgers, should join the former president in supporting the American news media. They need to remind the country that freedom of the press is as crucial a protection against tyranny today as it was in the 1700s.

Thoughtful Americans surely hope never to face another Watergate. But whatever the future holds, we know this: Our system of government simply can’t survive without a free, independent and courageous press.

Jamie Tobias Neely is the director of the journalism program at Eastern Washington University and a former member of The Spokesman-Review editorial board. Her email address is jamietobiasneely@comcast.net



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