From “Enemy of the People” to “Essential”: The Pandemic Creates an Opening for the Press

(Editor’s Note: Today marks World Press Freedom Day, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993 and commemorated each year by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom worldwide. Georgetown Law Professor Erin Carroll suggests a way the U.S. news media and its supporters can build on the crisis-driven recognition of its essential role.)

Alongside workers in healthcare, agriculture, and energy, employees in another industry earned the label “essential” in the pandemic-driven stay-at-home orders of dozens of states: the press. Almost poetically, Kentucky deems the media among the industries that are “life-sustaining.” And, according to federal guidance, news reporting efforts are “critical infrastructure.”

For press advocates, these declarations feel a bit strange in an already disorienting time. It is rare that government recognizes its unofficial fourth branch. It is even more infrequent that it affirms the press’s vital role.

But these orders present a strangely fortuitous opportunity: they can help to shift the narrative about the news media and journalism.

For more than three years, that prevailing narrative has been spun by President Donald Trump, and it has been vicious. The press is the “enemy of the people,” “fake,” and “failing,” and journalists are “human scum.” Others have taken up his narrative and embroidered on it: a senator dismissed a journalist as a “liberal hack;” a congressman’s campaign called a local newspaper a “propaganda machine.”

By telling a different story — one in which the press is essential — the stay-at-home orders are a call to action. Advocates of independent journalism can amplify this pro-media narrative and demonstrate why — in this moment, perhaps more than ever — the press truly is critical infrastructure. This effort may mean the difference between emerging from the pandemic with a functioning Fourth Estate or facing what one news-industry analyst has called an “extinction event” for many media outlets.

“Extinction” may seem extreme, especially when we feel awash in (dreadful) news. But it is not. Even pre-COVID-19, the American press was anemic. Since the 2008 recession, nearly half of American newspaper jobs have disappeared. Large areas of the United States are now “news deserts,” defined as communities “with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.” This year alone, the stock of the nation’s largest newspaper chain, Gannett Co., dropped 85 percent. The pandemic has hastened a gutting that was well underway.

When Local Media Disappears

The dire language of “extinction” is also warranted because the stay-at-home orders are right — the press is essential. It is essential to our democracy as an educator of the public and a watchdog over government. As studies show, when local media disappears, voter turnouts are lower, and voters are less informed. The news media is also essential, through the stories it tells, to our understanding of our ourselves and our communities. The disappearance of local news has, in fact, been shown to be correlated with our increased polarization. Plus, and importantly for present purposes, the press is also essential to our well-being. Public health officials have historically relied on local news to track the spread of disease.

In the weeks since the stay-at-home orders were issued, the press has again earned its label as “essential.” The Atlantic launched The COVID Tracking Project, which is compiling information about testing and reported cases of the virus, because “no governmental or institutional source is publishing complete testing data.” Numerous outlets have shed light on outbreaks in nursing homes, prisons, Amazon warehouses, and meatpacking plants. The press has called attention to racial disparities in the impact of the pandemic. It is devoting resources to obituaries of COVID-19 victims which, as a recent story in The Kansas City Star put it, are “reminders of just how interconnected we truly are.” And many outlets have removed any paywall on their COVID-19 reporting because they understand the information is vital.

A shift in the narrative about the press to focus on its essential nature and the critical information it provides may seem a meager effort against the eradication of the industry. But the power of story is not to be underestimated, especially when it comes to stories about the news media. Although conventional wisdom is that the First Amendment is the font of the press’s power, its strength also springs from cultural norms and the public’s trust. These norms and this trust are wrapped up in the stories we tell about the press.

A public that subscribes to anti-press rhetoric — that believes the news media is the enemy of the people (as nearly a third of Americans do) and that has lost trust in it (as the majority of Americans have) — is not a public inclined to support the emergency financial injection that journalism advocates are seeking. These include a stimulus that would double federal funding for public media and create a “First Amendment Fund” to support journalism innovation, legislation that would pressure Google and Facebook to better compensate the media for news, and a push for the government to funnel public-health ads through local media. A public that believes the news media peddles in “fake” information is also unlikely to support the kinds of long-term, structural shifts in law and policy that are necessary — and overdue — for a more robust press.

Any effort to build on the positive press rhetoric emerging from the pandemic can be viewed as having short-term imperatives and longer-term goals.

Right now, the press could reinforce any short-term positive change in the narrative about its work by using its own megaphone. Journalists are averse to being the story, but the effort need not be undertaken by reporters. Editorial boards could trumpet the benefits that their newsroom colleagues bring to local communities. The Boston Globe organized such an effort in 2018 in response to Trump’s repeated attacks. Approximately 350 news organizations published editorials defending freedom of the press. The collaboration should be revived, and nightly newscasts on ABC, CBS, and NBC could also be brought into the fold. Their viewership is vast and has grown during the pandemic.

A Conversation About the Future

But the effort to shift the narrative cannot all be on the shoulders of the news media. Building on the stay-at-home orders, state and local officials also need to use their platforms to tout the importance of a free press. In the same way as local officials have shown leadership during the pandemic in the face of the federal government’s inaction, they can be an antidote here as well. Local leaders — elected, appointed, or simply community icons — can highlight examples of impactful reporting. For example, last week, Washington Governor Jay Inslee tweeted about The Seattle Times’ “stories of Washingtonians who have succumbed to the virus” and noted the importance of remembering the “lives lost” and the “struggle to protect others.” The State of New Jersey’s official Twitter account was even more direct in its support of the media when it tweeted: “SUPPORT LOCAL NEWS.”

Longer term, we need an in-depth and sustained national conversation about how the press is essential to democracy, what we want our 21st century press to look like, and how we foster its existence. One model for this conversation and effort is the Hutchins Commission and its 1947 report, “A Free and Responsible Press.” The commission, sponsored by the publisher of Time and Life magazines and headed by the president of the University of Chicago, addressed the question of whether a free press was in danger (it concluded that it was). In answering this question, the Commission envisioned what a better-functioning free press could look like and how it could be achieved. That vision might be different today, and the mechanisms for its realization would certainly be, but these are precisely the reasons why the conversation is needed anew.

If we do not seize this moment, and we fail to encourage pro-press narratives, we leave a vacuum. That vacuum will inevitably be filled by those who intend to undermine independent journalism. (Trump, for one, reliably continues to attack the news media and journalists.)

We also risk letting the void be filled by others who might not intentionally harm the press, but do so with some regularity. For example, members of the news media and their supporters were baffled last fall when the newly-launched Facebook News tab, which Mark Zuckerberg promised would contain “high quality” information from “trustworthy” sources, showcased Breitbart. Platforms like Facebook have routinely failed both to treat news as a public good and to compensate fairly the producers of news. We cannot trust technology platforms to dictate the story of what the press should do and be.

Advocates of a free press were a tired bunch even before COVID-19 turned the world upside down. But even amidst the wretchedness and overwhelming nature of this moment, we should not pass up the opportunity it has granted to shift the story about the press. Novelist and activist Arundhati Roy has compared the pandemic to “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” She has said that we can pass through it “dragging the carcasses of our prejudice,” or we can walk through “ready to reimagine another world.”

We need to ensure that we emerge from this pandemic not as a nation that distrusts the press, but as one that truly understands its press is “essential,” “life-sustaining,” and “critical infrastructure.” We need to emerge ready to reimagine how to support such a press. To do anything else risks its widespread extinction.

IMAGE: U.S. President Donald Trump answers questions from the media during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC on April 21, 2020. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Erin Carroll

Professor of Law, Legal Practice at Georgetown Law, where she teaches courses on technology and the free press, narrative, and legal writing and analysis. Follow her on Twitter (@erinccarroll13).