Twitter, Trump, Fox, and the Viability of the Free Press

Panelists at "The Free Press" event at The Graduate Center
Professor Peter Beinart moderates "The Free Press" with panelists (from left): Jeff Jarvis, Anne Applebaum, Michelle Goldberg, and Graciela Mochofsky.

If a free press is fundamental to a functioning democracy, what is the future of democracy when freedom of the press is in jeopardy? That was the underlying question of “The Free Press,” a panel discussion among leading journalists held on Monday night at The Graduate Center, as part of its “Promise and Perils of Democracy” series.

Graduate Center Professor Peter Beinart moderates a panel discussion.

Professor Peter Beinart

The moderator, Peter Beinart, contributor to The Atlantic, CNN commentator, and a professor at The Graduate Center and CUNY’s Craig Newmark School of Journalism, asked provocative and topical questions of the evening’s panelists, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, blogger and Newmark J-School Professor Jeff Jarvis, and reporter and Newmark J-School Professor Graciela Mochkofsky.

The journalists agreed that their livelihood and in some cases their colleagues’ lives were under threat, but differed somewhat on the causes and solutions.

Goldberg observed that, “When Jamal Khashoggi was killed … and the administration basically shrugged its shoulders, it sent a message to autocrats all over the world.” To her, while the media and the country face “existential” danger in the current political climate, foreign correspondents, both Americans and international, face “immediate, real, physical danger.”

Mochkofsky agreed and cited additional examples of foreign correspondents losing their lives and the indifference of the presidential administration.

Goldberg observed that journalism is in jeopardy on many fronts.

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg speaks at The Graduate Center

Michelle Goldberg

“We’ve never before had a government both that engages in demonization of individual journalists, that basically has a state TV propaganda network that engages in deliberate falsehoods, and just a lack of transparency that is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before she said,” noting the administration’s ignoring of FOIA requests and lack of press conferences.

Applebaum observed that the president is a product of his times as well as an instigator of the current situation.

“We are really at a profound moment of the information revolution,” she said, comparing today to the invention of the printing press that spurred the spread of knowledge, the Reformation, and, subsequently, “hundreds of years of European religious wars.”

Applebaum attributed the current political polarization to the proliferation of smartphones and social media, which feed people the news and information that they want to see.

Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum speaks at Graduate Center eventAnne Applebaum

Trump, she said, “was one of the first [national] politicians to understand that … if you speak just to one constituency, that’s enough to win an election.”

She noted that he understands the “disorientating nature of social media and the nature of new media.”

Later, Applebaum and others mused about whether bots and anonymous social media accounts deserved First Amendment protection.

Jarvis pointed out that social media has enabled communities and voices “that were never heard in mainstream media to be heard, and the last thing we should do is turn our backs on that.”

He sees more danger from certain media outlets that shun objectivity, such RT in Russia and Fox News in the States. “I personally believe that Rupert Murdoch is the most malign influence on American and English-language democracy around the world,” he said, adding later, “We in media these days tend to go to Facebook and Google and say, ‘Clean up the act, get rid of bad actors.’ But we in journalism are loathe to get rid of our own bad actors.”   

The panelists agreed that the crumbling business model for journalism poses another threat to the free press and, in particular, the viability of local journalism.

Applebaum offered that journalism could survive by being treated as a public service supported by philanthropy and possibly even tied to universities and other academic institutions.  
At the end of a lively audience Q&A session, Jarvis elicited applause for his redefinition of journalism.

“My new definition is to convene communities into civil, informed, productive conversation,” he said. “And I think that we have to see that our job is to build bridges, is to make strangers less strange, is to stop the demonization of the other, is to cover the issues that matter in people’s lives, and not let Trump declare war, not let him set the agenda, and do a better job of listening to the majority of this country and their lives.”

Submitted on: MAR 20, 2019

Category: General GC News | Political Science