#FreePress editorial campaign unites newspapers against ‘Trump’s anti-First Amendment rhetoric’

Newspaper stock. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

On Thursday, hundreds of newspapers across the United States and abroad published editorials emphasizing the importance of a free press for a healthy democracy. The effort, coordinated by The Boston Globe, is in part a rallying cry against President Donald J. Trump’s sustained attacks on the news media as “the enemy of the American people.”

For more than two centuries, this foundational American principle has protected journalists at home and served as a model for free nations abroad,” the Globe editorial reads. “Today it is under serious threat.” The editorial compares Trump to authoritarian leaders like Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who have consolidated power in part by vilifying and subsequently cracking down on independent media outlets.

Dan Kennedy.

In a series of tweets Thursday morning, Trump responded to the editorial campaign, writing, “The fake news media is the opposition party.”

We asked Dan Kennedy, a nationally-known media commentator and associate professor of journalism at Northeastern, to discuss the significance of the editorials. He says that while the main purpose of editorials “is not to change hearts and minds,” the fact that hundreds of newspapers have joined the #FreePress campaign to stand up for the First Amendment lends it the credence to become a national story.

It’s still early, but given how many other news organizations have signed on to the effort, do you think the campaign will have any significant effect on the opinions of Americans?

There might be a small impact in terms of educating the public about President Trump’s war against the news media. Up until this point, many people know that Trump has referred to journalism as “the enemy of the American people” and “fake news,” but they may be unclear on why what we do matters in a democracy. That said, I’ve written enough editorials over the years to know that their main purpose is not to change hearts and minds. I see this as an exercise in standing up for our values and defending the First Amendment at a moment when we are under attack.

Does the fact that this effort started at The Boston Globe—the paper of record for a deeply blue state—affect how the message will be received?

No, because even though the Globe coordinated this campaign, each newspaper published its own editorial. As Marjorie Pritchard, the Globe’s deputy editorial-page editor, wrote last week, “The impact of Trump’s assault on journalism looks different in Boise than it does in Boston. Our words will differ. But at least we can agree that such attacks are alarming.”

Consider just one of the more than 300 papers that took part, The Monitor of McAllen, Texas. Its editorial is considerably milder in its treatment of the president than the one that appeared in the Globe. I’m not sure that readers of The Monitor even know that the idea for the editorial originated with the Globe. They nevertheless were given a valuable civics lesson about the role of the press when they picked up their paper today.

The Globe editorial draws comparisons between Trump’s actions and those of noted authoritarians Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Do you think it’s a fair comparison?

I often cringe when people compare Trump to Hitler. It’s completely over the top, and it shuts down debate and discussion before it can even begin. But I think the comparison to Putin and Erdogan is nuanced and appropriate. Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary could have been cited as well. Like Trump, these leaders are moving toward authoritarianism while maintaining the framework of constitutional legitimacy. There is a phrase for this: “illiberal democracy.”

Our founders hoped that Congress would serve as the counterbalance to rein in a runaway executive. Unfortunately, what we are seeing is that the Republican Congress will not act in any meaningful way against a Republican president. Thus we are seeing something similar to, if not as pernicious as, the virtual one—party rule that prevails in Russia, Turkey, and Hungary.

A Quinnipiac poll published this week found 51 percent of Republicans considered the press “the enemy of the people rather than an important part of democracy.” Besides Trump, are there other factors that could be contributing to Americans’ distrust of the press?

The idea that Americans’ trust in the press has declined is not wrong, but it is totally misunderstood. It is an artifact of the explosion in news and opinion outlets, each catering to a narrow niche that serves every conceivable political viewpoint. Compare that to the pre-cable, pre-internet era, when most people’s news diet was limited to one newspaper and the three network nightly news broadcasts, all of which were similar in content and tone. Today, when people are asked if they trust the media, they say “no.” When they are asked if they trust those media outlets that they use on a regular basis, they say “yes.”

Since the election, we have seen new audiences flock to quality news sources. Subscription revenues are up, donations to nonprofit news have increased, and circulation and ratings are rising. But this growth comes almost entirely from people who oppose President Trump. By contrast, his followers are plugged into their own media ecosystem, which is dominated by Fox News. One of Trump’s great successes has been to convince his supporters that the propaganda produced by Fox is no different from the deeply reported journalism offered by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and similar news organizations.

Have there been other instances when the American press took such a unified stance on something?

I can’t think of anything like this happening before. I see it as an attempt to cut through the noise. In the current media environment, it is nearly impossible to be heard above the din, especially with an unsigned editorial—perhaps the hoariest of newspaper traditions. By acting as they did, more than 300 newspapers were able to turn their objections to the president’s anti-First Amendment rhetoric into a national story.