Journalism is under attack but is not doomed, despite the president of the United States declaring reporters the enemy of the American people, the National Press Club president said Wednesday at the Akron Press Club.
“Trump’s statement has put journalists on the defense,” said Jeff Ballou, the first black man to be named president of the National Press Club in the organization’s 109-year history. “Some journalists used phrases to fight back. Some wore T-shirts that said ‘We are not the enemy’ … If you’ve looked at the New York Times or Washington Post lately, each of these heralded news organizations have decided at one point or another (to) create a phrase on their masthead. The Washington Post’s phrase says, ‘Democracy dies in darkness.’ The New York Times ran a campaign rolled out during the Golden Globes stating that ‘The truth is important now more than ever.’ Both campaigns arose in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s declaration of journalists as enemies of the American people. You see other journalism organizations emphasizing the negative with with t-shirt campaigns like ‘We are not the enemy.’ I don’t condemn such things, but there’s an old adage one of my board members reminded me about reinforcing the negative isn’t the best strategy. So I took that wisdom and decided to add the words, ‘We are the constitution,’ underneath The National Press Club’s logo.”
Ballou, a news editor at Al Jazeera Media Network — a 24-hour global network — spoke to about 60 people at Quaker Square. The event was co-sponsored by Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. and the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.
Ballou said journalists take the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to heart, calling freedom of speech “the lead hitter for the Bill of Rights.”
“The amendment means government should be accessible and accountable to the people, to us,” he said.
“It means no government meetings can be held privately without notice, the government can’t prevent the release of documents pertaining to the workings of government, we are not to be restricted from raising questions on behalf of the citizenry to give them information … overall, we as a profession take the amendment to mean that the government can’t pass a law preventing us from doing our jobs.”
He said what it means in the current environment is that when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson leaves the press corps behind using a bogus excuse, that’s obstructing the public from getting information.
“A taxpayer supports an elected official who takes an oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution,” Ballou said. “The last time I checked, you can’t say ‘I’m going to enforce this part of the Constitution and not another.’ When people shut the door and prevent you from getting information, use the Freedom of Information Act.”
He said journalists can also consult with organizations like the National Press Club or use Politifact fact checkers.
“I learned growing up that when the president of the United States said something, it’s supposed to matter and be factual,” Ballou said.
“It’s up to us as journalists to constantly correct the record. But we’re in new territory, not necessarily trusting what’s coming out of the mouth of the leader of the free world. That’s a tough place to be. Fact checking is important, because we get it wrong, too. It’s not a game of gotcha.
“Truth is not a game at all. Journalists have to distinguish between lies, from honest errors, substance and intent,” he continued. “If you make a mistake, clean it up and move on. If you can’t get facts corroborated, protect yourself by telling the truth.”
“We can and should police ourselves. Fake news is different. Propaganda is not new, call it for what it is. Whenever someone attacks you, the one basic fact is that we are the Constitution.”
Despite Trump’s relentless attacks on the “fake news” media, a Quinnipiac University poll released last month indicates a majority of Americans say they trust the media more than Trump about important issues.
The survey said that 52 percent of voters trust the media, with only 37 percent saying they trusted Trump more.
In response to that poll, Ballou said, “People are beginning to wise up.”
Members of the audience said what struck them the most about Ballou’s presentation was that, just like journalists should read several newspapers and listen to several news channels, so should the public.
“It’s important for us to do our own homework, to do our own investigating and check several sources, don’t just depend on one opinion or source,” said Joe Simmons of Akron.
Eufrancia Lash agreed. He said he can appreciate what journalists do.
“I recognize the ethical and moral obligation that the press has in today’s political climate and how important their job is to the American public to stick to the facts and produce the truth in a climate that truth is not highly valued,” he said. “But it’s something we need to maintain in our free society.”
Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Follow her on Twitter@MarilynMillerBJ