Bill Adair, director of the DeWitt Wallace Center, gave the keynote speech at the 2017 First Amendment Day, held Sept. 26 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The full text of Adair’s speech, titled “The Enemy of the American People and the Future of a Free Press,” is below.
It’s a real honor to be here on First Amendment Day. The First Amendment is actually my favorite amendment, so I’m happy to talk about its important role in American journalism. My second-favorite is the 21st Amendment, which has been nearly as important to journalism as the First.
It’s nice to be on this end of Tobacco Road and see the unusual shade of blue you wear. I’ve noticed something else: people in Chapel Hill use an odd spelling of “dook.” Just so you know, it’s D-U-K-E.
I’ve titled my speech “The Enemy of the American People and the Future of a Free Press.” I’m sure you recognize the first part, which comes from an extraordinary comment that President Trump made about the news media back in February.
That remark is one of many unprecedented attacks the president of the United States has made against some of the best news organizations in our country. He initially used the phrase in a tweet against the New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS and CNN. But he later used it more broadly against what he called “the fake news media,” which seems to include pretty much all mainstream news organizations.
He has said reporters are “among the most dishonest human beings on earth” and referred to BuzzFeed, an outlet that does excellent accountability journalism, as a “failing pile of garbage.” He used a doctored wrestling video to indicate his support for violence against journalists. He has insulted and mocked many reporters and opinion writers, often getting quite personal. He insulted MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski for her appearance and said she “had a mental breakdown.” He’s called conservative pundit Erick Erickson “a major sleaze and buffoon” and called Meet the Press host Chuck Todd “sleepy eyes” and “pathetic.”
He has attacked so many people, so often, that we have gotten numb to it. But his attacks have had a terrible corrosive effect. As Brian Stelter, the CNN media correspondent, has put it, Trump’s statements are “a verbal form of poison… meant to harm news organizations.”
Attacking the media isn’t new. It’s been part of the political playbook for decades. The attacks have been so common that the mainstream media is often referred to by the initials MSM. And when those initials are used, it’s usually in a derogatory way.
We can’t have an honest discussion about politics or policy because we can’t agree on the same facts.
In the book Attack the Messenger, Craig Crawford wrote that “Politicians in all systems of government have long yearned to muzzle the press. In dictatorships, they simply murder annoying reporters. In democracies, silencing of critics must be a bit more on the symbolic side.”
Crawford says that over the past few decades, the strategy has been used effectively by both Republicans and Democrats. He says it “always finds a receptive audience. It’s human nature. When you don’t want to believe something, what do you do? First, you blame the messenger.”
Crawford wrote that a decade ago. Lately, the attacks against the press have come largely from the right. Conservative news organizations have used the tactic to find a lucrative niche in the media ecosystem, positioning themselves as alternative news sources that supposedly tell the truth when the MSM won’t.
The relentless criticism has had an impact, eroding support for the news media. The decline has been greatest among Republican voters, causing a troubling partisan divide about the media. A Gallup poll released last week showed 72 percent of Democrats’ have confidence in the media to report the news “fully, accurately and fairly.” But that number is just 37 percent among independents and a remarkably low 14 percent among Republicans.
That number is alarming. It means barely 1 in 10 Republicans believe the news media can be accurate and fair.
Our student researchers in the Duke Reporters’ Lab found a similar pattern this year when they examined references to political fact-checking in liberal and conservative publications. Our study found liberal writers admire fact-checking, cite it favorably and use positive adjectives such as “independent” and “nonpartisan.” They refer to fact-checkers as “watchdogs” and “heroes.”
Conservative writers belittle fact-checking and complain that it’s biased. They say it’s “left-leaning” and use sarcastic quotes (“fact-checking”) to suggest it’s not legitimate.
Another factor: many people don’t differentiate between news and opinion. We did another study in the Reporters’ Lab this year in which our students examined how well news organizations include labels to indicate which articles are news, analysis or opinion. We found that a relatively small number of publications label article type. This leads to confusion and misunderstanding. People who see an unlabeled opinion column sometimes wrongly conclude that news coverage is biased. We didn’t study labeling on TV, but it’s a problem there too. On cable TV news shows it’s common to see panels of reporters and so-called “news analysts” (former politicians and political operatives) all seated side-by-side without any labeling to help viewers to tell the journalists from the paid partisans.
The effect of all this: The right and the left get their news from very different sources and believe in different truths. That has contributed to the dysfunction of our political discourse. We can’t have an honest discussion about politics or policy because we can’t agree on the same facts.
This partisan divide over the media is now a crisis. The media in our country plays a vital role to hold power accountable – to dig into politicians’ conflicts of interest, expose corruption and fact-check their speeches. But the media’s ability to do that is based on trust. People must believe that journalists are honest brokers who are examining both sides fairly.
To be clear, I think the partisan media and opinion journalism play an important role in our discourse. A federal judge recently summed it up nicely when he wrote, “Nowhere is political journalism so free, so robust, or perhaps so rowdy as in the United States.”
That rowdiness means we can read columns to consider alternate points of view. That makes us question things and have a healthy debate.
But that doesn’t happen enough. We live in an age when it’s easier than ever to read only the opinions you like. That’s why I give my students a “Media Consumption Pyramid” and recommend they get at least one serving of an opinion they don’t like every day.
As we discuss the state of the media, it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes the critics are good points. We can learn lessons from criticism. Even the best journalists make mistakes. Check out the corrections on stories and you’ll see everything from misspelled names to major factual errors. It is valuable to demand corrections from those news organizations that don’t publish or broadcast them prominently.
But it’s wrong for opponents to belittle corrections and portray them as examples of media screw-ups. Corrections are a sign of an honest media. They reflect a sincere commitment by news organizations to get the facts right.
The deepening partisan split over the media is worrisome because it harms objective journalism. The reporters being insulted and harassed at Trump rallies aren’t columnists or editorial writers. They are reporters trying to report the news.
And the stakes are huge. This isn’t a case of a single product being threatened, it’s an entire industry — one that is critical in our democracy.
How did we get to this crisis? One obvious reason is the tribal split in news consumption that’s been made possible in the digital age. It’s easier than ever to retreat into a comfort zone where you get only the opinions you like. That often includes attacks against objective journalism. Turn on cable news for an hour and you’ll probably hear someone take a shot at “the media.”
When people hear those shots day in and day out for years, it has a terrible corrosive effect.
And there’s another reason for the steady decline in trust of the media: complacency by media companies. They have been pummeled for years and have done little to respond.
When other industries face a crisis of confidence, they respond with bold action. If you examine case studies of companies that have faced a crisis, you can see the value of a forceful response.
So how can the news media respond?… Their first step should be to listen to people in the heartland of America.
When seven people were killed after taking Tylenol capsules that had been laced with cyanide in 1982, the manufacturer Johnson & Johnson stopped production and recalled all capsules from the market. The company developed tamper-resistant packaging that ensured consumers could tell if a bottle had been opened.
When General Motors was under fire in 2014 for failing to respond to ignition switch problems in some of its cars — a problem the company had known about for years –CEO Mary Barra responded boldly. She admitted the company’s mistakes, disavowed the actions of previous managers and acknowledged the company’s moral, legal and financial responsibilities to victims.
These companies and others facing a major crisis knew they had to acknowledge the problem, admit their mistakes and respond in a bold way. Their actions helped restore faith in their products.
But media companies have been lulled into complacency by decades of fat profits, a culture of caution and the fear that a forceful response would make them look biased. They’ve gotten pummeled for years, but they’ve often said and done little to arrest the decline in trust.
The paradox of the media business is that while editors and news directors are great at telling other people’s stories, they are lousy at telling their own. Journalists are a cautious breed and are suspicious of self-promoters. So when they get attacked, they just absorb the punches.
This has largely been the case with the recent attacks by President Trump. Media companies have done relatively little to respond. I worry that that the surge in subscriptions and TV ratings since Trump took office has fooled them into thinking their products are strong.
This has truly become a crisis. It’s not just a single company that’s in trouble. This affects all companies that produce objective news – a product that is critical for a healthy democracy.
So how can the news media respond?
Media executives need to adopt some of the same techniques that other companies have used when they’ve been in a crisis. The executives need to acknowledge the problem and respond with transparency.
Their first step should be to listen to people in the heartland of America. It’s clear from the surveys and our Reporters’ Lab study about fact-checking that there is a stark partisan divide over accountability journalism – and I’m sure it has the same rural/urban split as the rest of our politics. The media companies need to have conversations with people in suburbs and rural areas that they’re not connecting with. The media companies need to do what I often tell my students: Grab a notebook and go talk with people.
Once they get an idea of how and why their products aren’t connecting, the media companies need to craft a strong response. I expect it would have several elements:
News organizations need to be more transparent. They can start with a simple fix: labeling article types and video so that people know what’s news, analysis and opinion. They should also do a better job indicating their sources for a story. They could adopt the same approach as fact-checkers, listing sources beside an article and even indicating the sources’ political point of view.
They also should consider adopting the open reporting techniques pioneered by David Fahrenthold at the Washington Post. David posted photos of his legal pad on Twitter as he was reporting his stories, which inspired great confidence that he was thorough and fair.
News organizations need to push back. There has been some excellent reporting into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, but President Trump has often been able to dismiss the reports by simply calling them “fake news.” Reporters need to press Trump and his aides for specifics: If the story is wrong, what is incorrect? If they don’t reply, follow-up stories should note that the White House failed to give any specifics.
Editors and news directors also should respond to the constant barrage of general attacks by using an assertive campaign on social media and elsewhere. If someone tweets about “the liberal media,” they should respond with a tally of how many conservatives were interviewed for news coverage in the previous week or how many conservative op-eds were published.
News organizations need to experiment with automation. Yesterday we announced a $1.2 million project in the Duke Reporters’ Lab to build tools and apps to automate fact-checking. Automation can help us broaden the reach for this important journalism to people who haven’t been seeing it.
News organizations need to correct their mistakes. As I said earlier, corrections are a sign of an honest media. When journalists discover they made a mistake, they should correct their stories quickly and prominently.
News organizations need to tell their own story. This is important at two levels, both for individual works of journalism and on a more macro level.
When they have a good story, reporters should take readers and viewers behind the scenes and explain how they got it and who they interviewed. The New York Times has started doing this with a Sunday feature called “Inside the Times: the Story Behind the Story.” It’s a fascinating look at our profession and it often shows how thorough journalists are.
Another way that news organizations can tell their story is to highlight the impact of their work. In his book “Democracy’s Detectives,” my former Duke colleague Jay Hamilton used a creative approach to measure the economic impact of investigative journalism.
Our media is in crisis. Journalists must speak up and push back.
He examined a series by the Raleigh News & Observer on failures in the state probation system, a series that was prompted by the killing of UNC student body president Eve Carson. It cost the paper $216,500 in reporting and editing costs. It led to new state policies that according to Jay’s calculations, reduced the number of murders committed by people on probation by eight – which had a net benefit of $62 million.
And finally, there’s a surprisingly simple way that media companies can tell their stories: using movies and TV shows. Have you seen Spotlight? It’s a marvelous movie that shows the reporting by the Boston Globe’s investigative team in exposing the problems of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. It’s not just a great movie about journalism, it’s simply a great movie — so good that it won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
We need more “Spotlights” – not just on movie screens but also on TV. Journalism has the elements that you need for a good series: drama and heroes and villains. One of the networks or streaming services should develop a series about reporters and the important work they do.
To conclude, I want to return to the First Amendment. As one of the founders of the International Fact-Checking Network, the association of journalists that hold politicians accountable for their words, I’m often reminded about the perils that journalists face around the world. For example, the fact-checkers for Iran have to work from Canada because their home country is so hostile to a free press.
In the United States, we are fortunate to have the First Amendment and the many press freedoms that it provides. But the digital age is creating new problems. Journalists still have great freedom, but their work is under constant attack from powerful forces — including our president. And they can leverage the digital audience to whip up opposition from the most polarized audiences.
Our media is in crisis. Journalists must speak up and push back and the executives running media companies need to put some energy and money into promoting journalism. They have a great story to tell. They simply need to tell it.