Former Journalist Discusses Freedom of the Press in Trump Era
President Donald Trump’s criticism of the press began in earnest once he was elected late last year, saying in a February tweet “the fake news media is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people,” according to former journalist and Tulane law professor Amy Gajda.
But the backlash against journalism may have been simmering for years, even decades, before the election, she said.
Gajda detailed the media’s past, present and future during her Sept. 15 Joynes Reading Room lecture “Freedom of the Press in the Trump Era." But her take on the state of the press today extended beyond its battles with the president.
“This talk isn’t an equivalent of an anti-Trump tweet-storm,” Gajda said. “Its focus goes far beyond a man and whatever power he may have to debilitate the press. It looks in large parts to threats against media more generally, and those threats are more diffuse and weightier than you might realize.”
While the clash between the media and the current administration has been exhaustively scrutinized in the months since November 2016, Gajda focused on historical and legal cases that have contributed to the growing hostility against today’s journalists, mainstream or otherwise.
“To my mind,” Gajda said, “the Trump era’s anti-press movement began in earnest a decade or so ago, when courts started to shift against media, moving from deference towards media to a more robust critique of journalism’s efforts.”
That backlash, she explains, stems from the natural distrust between power and journalism.
“Good journalism decidedly speaks truth to power. The journalists I know -- the good ones -- fight for the people by ferreting out truth, asking the questions and doing the investigations that lead to that truth, even when that truth hurts,” Gajda said. “Despite journalism’s power to do right, or perhaps at times because of it, the powerful have not liked journalism much, and there's been a strong history of antipress language by people in high places from very early on.”
Those prominent historical figures, numbering among them President Cleveland and a Supreme Court justice, condemned the power journalists were naturally afforded as members of society; Cleveland went so far as to call them “contemptible”.
Gajda cited several specific legal cases during the lecture, pulling from bulwarks of media law such as The New York Times v. Sullivan as well as more recent cases, like one federal appellate court that decided a Chicago newspaper would be liable for reporting the height and weight of police officers; although the information was truthful, it had been gained through a state driver’s license database in violation of privacy laws.
“My argument has been that as media turned away from ethics codes, becoming a more generalized sense the media, as opposed to journalism, courts stopped being deferential and felt more empowered to criticize and second guess publication decisions,” Gajda said. “And that criticism of media comes from very high places.”
This loss of deference is the subject of Gajda's latest book, The First Amendment Bubble: How Privacy and Paparazzi Threaten the Free Press, in which the repercussions of loosening ethics codes on established news are explored -- with grave implications.
“When we thought of media as The New York Times or even the National Enquirer, it was easier to be deferential to the harm published there because reporters knew what they were doing for the most part,” Gajda said. “Today, in addition to more mainstream publishers, there are millions of websites, some of which publish hurtful and embarrassing information about even everyday people.”
These websites run the gamut, Gajda says. She mentioned one in particular, a website that pulls mugshots and asks viewers to match them to the crime.
“My argument then is that these sorts of websites and others help to curtail press freedoms for even more mainstream media,” Gajda said. “And even when mainstream media is involved, the court is sensitive that press protections could well extend beyond a mainstream newspaper to a website that mocks arrestees.”
But Gajda said that the future “may not be as dire as you might think”. She cited studies conducted by the Pew Research Center that reports a likely increase of 11% in digital news readership, as well as substantial increase in viewers of cable news.
“As those numbers may reflect, I think that journalism itself seems to be getting its groove back,” Gajda said, pointing out that younger people are increasingly relying on national newspapers.
And she believes with the proper education, journalism will have an even better chance.
“Media law classes and media law principles must be taught to everyone today, because everyone is, in effect, media,” Gajda said. “The more people know, the more they understand potential pitfalls that are ahead, and the less likely a lawsuit will be filed that could change the course of protection for all media forever.”Photographs © Matt Valentine 2017.
Freshman Journalism Major