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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Guest opinion: Editorials defending the press are a nice start – here’s where to go next

By Margaret Sullivan Washington Post

Last Thursday, in a show of unity, hundreds of American newspapers published editorials celebrating the press as a pillar of American democracy and defending journalists against President Donald Trump’s attacks.

The rare – probably unprecedented – collaboration, led by the Boston Globe, got a lot of attention, not all positive.

Some observers, like Frank Sesno, director of George Washington University’s media school, called it praiseworthy and, in its wide scope, “astonishing.”

Others, like Jesse Eisinger of ProPublica, scoffed: “I, for one, am not stirred with optimism, that the nation’s newspapers have all had to remind people in unison that a free press is important. Next we’ll editorialize that smashing your face against a brick wall is a bad idea.”

And Jack Shafer of Politico predicted it would backfire: “It will provide Trump with circumstantial evidence of the existence of a national press cabal that has been convened solely to oppose him.” As if on cue, the president – always predictable – starting tweeting about media collusion, an idea he apparently got from a Wall Street Journal editorial.

But love it or hate it, the effort was mostly symbolic. What’s really needed is a more practical kind of collaboration – and plenty of it.

After all, newspaper editorials rarely affect people’s votes for endorsed candidates, and they certainly aren’t going to transform the viewpoints of Trump’s most ardent followers. (In one recent poll, 43 percent of Republicans supported the autocratic notion that the government should be able to shut down news organizations.)

Could the editorials sway those who haven’t made up their minds about the value of the news media? Possibly, though it’s hard to believe there are too many citizens who, by now, haven’t chosen one camp or another.

But in a less trumpeted way, other kinds of journalistic collaborations are happening. They deserve attention, and they deserve to be replicated.

Take, for instance, what’s happening in Florida’s Broward County, where the South Florida Sun Sentinel published information about the gunman in the Parkland school massacre – including information that the school board had intended to redact but erroneously made public.

The school board sued the paper, and quickly, more than two dozen news organizations closed ranks around the local paper, backing it up with legal, moral and financial help.

That’s great. But, as Politico’s Florida Playbook noted, the message didn’t get out to regular folks:

“Where’s the sustained chorus of outrage from the national TV news media, once so eager to broadcast all things Parkland? Are they too busy talking about President Donald Trump as a possible threat to the First Amendment?”

Good point.

Then there’s collaboration on reporting itself. There’s more of it these days, but still not enough – often because news organizations see each other as competitors, not potential allies. (We see this in the White House briefing room, where reporters are finally beginning to back each other up when their questions are ignored or dismissed. But what if they all kept asking the same questions until a real answer emerged?)

When media companies – big and small – combine their reporting muscle, great things can happen, as ProPublica and the New York Daily News proved in their investigation of unfair evictions of minorities in the city’s public housing. It was good enough to win journalism’s highest honor – the Pulitzer Prize for public service.

Perhaps most important these days, news organizations are beginning to stand up – together – to the huge tech platforms such as Facebook. These companies have been so destructive to them as businesses – by, for example, siphoning off much of the ad revenue that once sustained traditional media outlets.

“News organizations can collectively decide how they will deal with platforms – if there isn’t cake for everyone, then no one gets cake,” author Nikki Usher, who teaches journalism at the University of Illinois, told me.

One example is the way hundreds of news organizations banded together recently to push back against a new policy of Facebook’s: to treat the paid promotions of news articles on political topics as if they were political advertising. The pushback resulted in Facebook’s pledge to reconsider the policy that threatened to confuse news with advertising for the platform’s billions of users.

These instances make you think: What if?

What if journalists could consistently and powerfully get their act together in meaningful collaboration, truly realizing their own strength in numbers?

So armed, they might do battle against the crushing tariffs that are jacking up newsprint prices; they might force the tech platforms to treat their editorial content with respect; they might even solve the urgent crisis in local news.

In a highly competitive, fractured industry that’s under siege in so many ways, that doesn’t seem terribly likely.

But if last week’s publication of editorials proved anything, maybe it’s that news organizations are capable of coming together.

A small victory, perhaps, but something to build on.

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