Editor-in-Chief Editorial: The free press issue

The Editors-in-Chief discuss the importance of protecting journalists and Americans' First Amendment right to a free press.


Editor-in-Chief Editorial

During a White House press conference, CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta questioned President Donald Trump’s characterization of the migrant group approaching the United States border, which Trump had previously described as an “invasion.” When Trump avoided giving him a direct answer, Acosta pressed for more information. In response, Trump called Acosta “the enemy of the people,” a phrase Trump uses often in reference to journalists and the media. Shortly after the conference, the White House revoked Acosta’s press pass. According to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Acosta “[placed] his hands” on a White House aide who physically tried to remove a microphone from his hands. However, original footage of the event clearly shows Acosta resisting the removal of the microphone without grabbing the woman.

The revocation of Acosta’s press pass was not the result of him “placing his hands” on someone, but the consequence of asking the president questions he did not want to answer. Journalists should not be punished for doing their jobs. Therefore we, the four Editors-in-Chief, believe the United States, specifically its government, should recognize the importance of the free press by protecting and defending the rights of journalists both inside and outside of the country.

With Trump’s use of phrases like “fake news” to describe the press becoming increasingly commonplace, it is no surprise that many Americans have begun subscribing to Trump’s rhetoric. The First Amendment states “Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” The journalists of this country cannot be deprived of their freedom to inform the public. It is not only their freedom but their right to report the truth, whether or not the government agrees with their newsgathering. Journalists are not your enemies. In fact, they are among those brave enough to utilize and protect the freedoms given to the American people in the Constitution. Trump’s repeated attacks against journalists at campaign rallies and in his tweets undermine the rights they have been granted. Never before has a president criticized journalists with such aggression in an attempt to damage their credibility.

When Trump uses phrases such as “the enemy of the people” and when his administration subsequently perpetuates this rhetoric, he portrays the media as untrustworthy and contributes to a growing divide between the public and its news sources. While the media may contribute to polarization within this country, it is not to the extent conveyed by Trump and his administration. The rhetoric of Donald Trump threatens journalists and the very pillars upon which this country is built: the five freedoms of the First Amendment. The press does not serve the government, it serves the people. Therefore, it is not subject to the approval of the president.

The president and his administration not only tarnish the reputation of journalists, but also contribute to the dangers of their job. At a campaign rally in October, Trump congratulated Rep. Greg Gianforte for body-slamming Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs and cited this incident as a reason for Gianforte’s congressional win in Montana’s special election last year. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, 43 journalists were physically assaulted or had their equipment damaged in 2017. That number should be zero. But as Trump continues his attacks on the media, he also influences the beliefs and actions of Americans, especially his supporters.

As a powerful and influential country in the world, the United States should not only protect journalists within its own borders but abroad as well. It failed to do this after Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi was killed at a Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey. Despite the CIA concluding that Mohammad Bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, was involved in Khashoggi’s death, Trump refused to acknowledge Saudi Arabia’s involvement because it is a prominent U.S. ally. Although the Trump administration imposed 17 sanctions against the Saudis implicated in the killing, is it not enough. These sanctions will prevent the involved Saudis from entering the U.S., but will leave Saudi Arabia to decide their criminal punishment. By not taking a firmer stance against Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration implies that it values its allies more than it does the lives of its journalists. Without the U.S. leading by example and punishing nations that do not protect journalists, the rest of the world will not be as inclined to prioritize the importance of the free press within their own borders.

Journalists need the protection of the U.S. government, starting at home. In February of this year, Rep. Eric Swalwell introduced the Journalist Protection Act to Congress. If passed, this law would make assaulting a reporter a federal crime. The bill has not moved out of the U.S. House of Representatives since then, but it is the action the U.S. needs to take in order to protect the rights of the free press.

In this year alone, 63 journalists have been killed around the world as a result of their job, according to Reporters without Borders. In a country where the free press is not protected by the government and its constitution, one would not be surprised to find journalists in dangerous, life-threatening situations. However, that shouldn’t be the case in the U.S. Just as one should feel safe walking into a school or a church, a journalist should feel protected while in their place of work. Yet after the shooting at the Capital Gazette newsroom in June, fear now lives in the workplace of American journalists, citizens who deserve security, human beings who love this country enough to criticize it. In order to maintain a democracy of free thought, the government must protect the media, starting with an end to the negative stigma towards the press. We are not your enemy.