Scott Brinton

The free press, making America great


No matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to get away from Donald J. Trump.

Case in point: In the past, much of the discussion at the New York Press Association’s April convention centered on subjects critical to a community journalist’s work: how to file a Freedom of Information request; how to craft a lead that anyone would want to read; how not to get sued for libel.

This year was different, however. President Trump — specifically, his overt disdain for the press — was front and center in talk after talk. Even when Trump had nothing to do with the subject at hand, he managed to worm his way into the discussion.

Clearly, journalists are angry with the president, and they need to talk. The convention, April 7-8, became a highly cathartic group therapy session.

Trump’s assertion that the press is the “enemy of the people” has journalists baffled, miffed, flabbergasted, disgusted, worried — and mostly questioning ourselves. How did it come to this? we’re left wondering. Past presidents have derided the press, most notably Richard Nixon. Trump’s term, however, is downright reprehensible.

Most journalists I know didn’t get into this profession — with its long, often unpredictable hours coupled with ceaseless deadline pressures — because they sought a life of leisure, or fame and fortune. They did so to give a “voice to the voiceless” and transform the world for the better.

Journalists have long enjoyed a tight-knit relationship with the public. People have traditionally called us to air their grievances against the government. And that, quite simply, is why Trump is attempting, with all his might, to sever the centuries-old partnership between news organizations and the people they cover. If he were to succeed, he would hold absolute power.

The press is this nation’s check on power. The founders intended it to be that way when they wrote press freedom into the First Amendment. They gave the press virtually free rein so no elected leader might become a dictator.

The power of the press lies in its ability to convey truth, with a capital “T.” Trump seeks to denigrate the press, to diminish it, by labeling our reporting “fake news.” No doubt, there is fake news out there. It is not, however, what real news organizations produce. Sure, there’s the occasional aberration. The New York Times’s Jayson Blair comes quickly to mind. He fabricated many of his stories in the early 2000s and was forced to resign in May 2003. But he was the exception.

In the wake of revelations surrounding the Blair case, it became apparent that the relationship between news organizations and the citizenry is not a given. It requires continual nurturing. Journalists must be committed to the “discipline of verification,” the rule that emerged from the scientific process that requires a minimum of three separate points of verification before a story can be printed or broadcast. If journalists dig and verify, dig and verify, they’ll be just fine, and the press will survive the tempest in a teapot that is the Trump phenomenon, which, it seems, is fading.

Trump certainly caused a disturbance in the force. The press is, however, a far larger institution than he is. Because of press freedom, news organizations are ubiquitous across the nation, with small, medium and large shops working daily to ignite local, regional and national conversations that will stir people’s hearts and incite action.

That is a powerful force — far more powerful than presidential bluster telegraphed in 140-character sound bites on Twitter. Ideas based in sound reasoning ultimately drive sustainable societies, and the press lives and breathes ideas. They are the foundation for all great journalism.

Trump’s tirade against the press has received more attention than it deserves because of the vociferous nature of his attacks and the inability of the press to promote itself. Journalists tend to shun the limelight, certain TV pundits excepted. Many journalists believe that their work should speak for itself. They need not defend it, even against attacks by the president. And, they believe, they need not explain themselves.

I disagree. Journalists should discuss their work. They should be transparent. They should be willing to hold conversations with readers. And the best outlet to foster open communication, I believe, is the community newspaper.

Community papers are “little gems,” as one of my first editors, Randi Kreiss, described them. Media critics often underestimate their importance or confuse them with the weekly circulars that arrive by mail. A real community paper, however, is the furthest thing from them.

Fiercely independent, community newspapers tell America’s story, town by town, village by village, school district by school district. Readers have taken notice. According to the Reynolds Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism, community papers boast a combined nationwide readership of 150 million, or 47 percent of the population.

Yes, America is a great nation, in large part because of its free press. Long live journalism! #nottheenemy

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column?