What’s worth protecting about a free press? NPR’s Folkenflik asks panelists

Sewell Chan, editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, says he will never forget what happened at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde on May 24, 2022 – or the days that ensued.

During “Free Press in a Free Society: U.S. Newsrooms on the Front Lines” Nov. 14, Chan called the deadly mass shooting “an unspeakable tragedy” but also noted a troubling trend: government officials casting journalists as participants in active developments who are not to be trusted.

“There’s been a string of incidents in which local officials or authorities have acted with not just mere avoidance but real hostility to the press,” said NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik ’91, in conversation with Chan. In this pivotal moment for American society, said Folkenflik, the Zubrow Distinguished Visiting Journalist in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S), journalists find themselves challenged by mistrust and polarization from both sources and audiences.

Moderating the Nov. 14 event, part of Cornell’s Freedom of Expression theme year, Folkenflik raised questions with Chan and Suzanne Mettler, the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions in government (A&S), about what is worth protecting about free press and why it is essential to the operation of American society.

“You can’t have a democracy without a free press and a healthy press,” said Mettler, whose most recent book focuses on four threats to democracy. “It’s crucial to make representative government work.”

Currently, Mettler said, “we have freedom of the press, but that doesn’t mean all is well.”

Mettler said she sees threats to press freedom growing out of political divides in the U.S.

In contrast to a mid-20th century journalism “golden age,” when local and regional newspapers were thriving and most Americans trusted both news and government institutions, today there are many more options overall, but more news deserts, especially in rural areas, fewer newspaper journalists reporting on state and local government, and more partisan news sources.

Still, these partisan news outlets do not typically shape people's partisan identity, Mettler said: “This builds on what we know about political partisanship. When people are choosing what political party they want to be part of, they don’t do a careful rational assessment of issues. Rather, the most common thing all of us do is we say, what do people like me do? What party do they have affinity to?”

Chan, who previously held senior positions at the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, said there’s a lot of discussion among journalists: how did we contribute to a loss of trust and what can we do to regain that trust?

“A lot of Americans are living beyond silos or culture bubbles. They’re truly in an alternative information system that is complete and comprehensive,” Chan said. “It provides a coherence or even a sense of meaning.”

While extreme views have always existed in media, Chan said, he traces the hyperpolarization of the modern era to political talk radio in the 1980s, then the growth of the 24/7 news cycle in the 1990s following the creation of Fox and MSNBC and a “dangerous” blurring of news and opinion.

“I’ve worked in both news and opinion sides, so I have respect for both, but the main course needs to be the news, a fact-based foundation upon which we can then analyze, interpret and debate,” Chan said. “When we don’t have a shared basis of facts, we don’t have the foundation to have meaningful discussions and opinions. News is so important because it’s the foundation for critical thinking and critical debate.”

The press can help make a vital distinction, Mettler said, between healthy variation in points of view, such as liberal and conservative, versus attacks on the pillars of democracy: free and fair elections; the rule of law; legitimacy of political opposition, and the integrity of rights.

“When those pillars of democracy are under threat, that’s dangerous,” she said. “What I’d like journalists to be doing is to be trying to educate the public on those pillars of democracy.”

Folkenflik asked the panelists about solutions.

Mettler said she would like to see reporting on what is working in our democracy. “A lot of what government is doing is actually working pretty well, yet we never learn about that,” she said, holding up the Affordable Care Act as an example. “What you don’t hear about is all of the Americans who are now covered by it.”

Nonprofit news is a bright spot, Chan said, including his paper, the Texas Tribune. 

“We don’t have a paywall. We believe information should be free,” he said. “When all the high-quality information you have to pull out a credit card to have access to, while meanwhile the junk, the hoaxes, the conspiracy theories, the memes, are plentiful, free and multiplying, it should not be a surprise about the consequences to our democracy.”

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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