Issues of Freedom and Trust for the Press

Last week President Donald Trump ruffled feathers when he tweeted, “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!” Many, including NRB’s president, waved First Amendment flags of caution, but the President’s challenge also drew attention to a growing problem for the press: public trust.

This week a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll showed that almost half of registered voters (46 percent) are of the opinion that major media outlets fabricate stories about the President and his administration. Only 37 percent said they did not think so. Notably, the overall 46 percent included not only 3 out of every 4 Republicans, but also 1 out of 5 Democrats surveyed. On the other hand, a majority of respondents (51 percent) also felt that the federal government should not be able to revoke broadcast licenses of media it so questions.

After President Trump’s tweet last week, Dr. Jerry A. Johnson, President & CEO of NRB, responded on Twitter, “We share your frustration with media bias/fake news. However, the 1st Amendment protects speech and press. It covers both sides, all sides.”

Other voices also spoke up for the First Amendment, including FCC Commissioners from both parties. Chairman Ajit Pai (R) reiterated this week his belief that the agency isn’t authorized to revoke broadcast licenses based on newscast content and said, “I have said for many years at the FCC that I believe in the First Amendment and under my leadership will stand for the First Amendment." In addition, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (D) explained her constitutional and process concerns in an op-ed and concluded, “…in the United States we have the right to express ourselves free from government interference. That right is a cherished part of who we are — and it’s a right worth speaking up to keep.” Commissioner Michael O’Rielly (R), too, emphasized at a public appearance the independence of the agency and the desire to keep politics out of station licensing. However, he did acknowledge the President’s frustration. O’Rielly said:

I think that the president is rightfully venting his experiences and disappointment with how the coverage has been occurring regarding his administration. I've been surprised how vitriolic that the coverage has been. I think that President Clinton got better coverage during the middle of impeachment than President Trump is getting these days.

Prior to January, Ari Fleischer, White House Press Secretary for President George W. Bush, said in an op-ed, “A casual glance at most front pages and network news lends credence to the president-elect when he complains about his coverage.” Now a recently released study from Pew Research Center provides measurable data for these concerns. Pew’s report shows 62 percent of news stories treating President Trump negatively in his first 60 days in office, contrasted with far less press negativity toward Presidents Barack Obama (20 percent), George W. Bush (28 percent), and Bill Clinton (28 percent) in their first 60 days. In his December article, Fleischer also said, “The press hasn’t been kind to Donald Trump—and that isn’t its job. That job is to cover the news in a fair manner.”

The issue of fairness appears to extend beyond treatment of the President by the major media outlets. For example, Senator James Lankford (R-Okla.) rebuked ABC News for irresponsibly parroting a “hate group” label of the controversial Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) when identifying NRB member Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). The senator emphasized the importance of the First Amendment freedoms of speech and the press, and the responsibility of those with powerful voices in the public square to take care in the words they use.

Lankford said that “disagreement is not the same as discrimination and it’s not the same as hate.” He warned, “Labeling ADF a ‘hate group’ feeds into a narrative that the news media frequently editorializes beyond the facts. This ultimately harms American trust in the press.”

  • Find here a 2017 NRB Board of Directors resolution highlighting NRB’s firm commitment to First Amendment freedoms of religion, speech, and press.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: October 20, 2017

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