The following is an editorial from Tarbell Founder Wendell Potter. It joins hundreds of other news organizations this Thursday in refuting attacks on a free press and calling for renewed support of journalism in the public interest.
The Tarbell editorial is followed by a reprinting of a note from Institute for Nonprofit News CEO and Executive Director Sue Cross. Tarbell is a member of INN.
Tarbell is proud to join hundreds of media organizations, including many other nonprofits, who, like Tarbell, are members of the Institute for Nonprofit News, in expressing our concern about the ongoing efforts of the Trump administration to vilify and delegitimize this country’s free press.
As important as this unified effort is, it should not be left to us to defend and explain the essential watchdog role we play in preserving our democratic republic and holding the powerful to account. It is time — long past time, actually — for our nation’s political, business and civic leaders to step forward and condemn the president’s dangerous vitriol.
Tarbell is named after Ida Tarbell, one of the most courageous and impactful journalists in American history. She ruffled many feathers in her career as she took on some of the most powerful and influential business and political leaders of the Gilded Age. She had the audacity to investigate and write about the unfair business practices of the world’s richest man in the early 1900s, John D. Rockefeller. Her reporting contributed to the breakup of his monopoly, the Standard Oil Company, and to important antitrust and campaign finance laws.
Rockefeller called her “that poisonous woman.” That didn’t deter her in the slightest. One can only imagine what Donald Trump would call her if she were alive today and had set her sights on the Trump Organization and presidency.
President Theodore Roosevelt was not a fan of her work, at least not at first. She was one of the original muckrakers, a term Roosevelt used, derisively, about journalists he wasn’t especially fond of. She and her fellow investigative reporters embraced the term, and Roosevelt himself became a fan of the work of reporters who waded into the muck of corporate America and wrote about it.
Roosevelt would later write, in an 1918 editorial, that: “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”
Tarbell is based in Philadelphia, the place not only where our democratic republic began but where our founders spoke frequently about the importance of free speech and a free press. None of them is more associated with Philadelphia than Ben Franklin, who among many other things was a printer and journalist.
“Freedom of speech,” wrote Franklin, “is a principle pillar of a free government. When this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected in its ruins. Republics and limited monarchies drive their strength and vigor from a popular examination into the actions of the magistrates.”
Who among our leaders today will defend the media so eloquently and dare to tell the 45th president his attacks on the press not only are a threat to the principles on which our country are based but are downright anti-American.
— Wendell Potter
Editorial from Sue Cross of the Institute for Nonprofit News:
Today, the Institute for Nonprofit News joins journalists across the country in asking you, the public, to stand up for your rights to free speech and an open government.
This started as a campaign by the Boston Globe to ask the President of the United States to knock off attacking the news media. But the President’s attacks on the press aren’t ultimately about the press.
“The press” is just journalists who work as your eyes and ears in places you can’t be. The press is the people you send into rooms to witness what your government is doing and tell you about it.
Dictators and tyrants don’t want you in the room. Dictators throughout the course of history have tried to limit what their people know or create confusion about what is true. By sowing confusion or getting you to limit your information sources, dictators reap power and control.
Don’t be confused.
In the U.S., we are not a dictatorship. We are a democracy. A free, fact-based press was built right into the foundations of that when the First Amendment was adopted in 1791:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Today, verbal and even physical attacks on media, police-state tactics and government secrecy are spreading with impunity throughout the country. In Denver and Milwaukee, police recently detained and harrassed nonprofit reporters and prevented them from doing their jobs. In Wausau, Wisconsin, officials routinely keep public documents out of the public’s hands — your hands. The same happens in East Lansing, San Diego, Oregon — and on and on. We hear reports month in month out, from the 170 nonprofit news media that are part of INN.
Attacks on nonprofit media are particularly cannibalistic. Nonprofit newsrooms are dedicated to public service. Their reporters and editors are public servants, with a mindset cops might find surprisingly close to their own. “Protect and serve” pretty well describes the motivations of most watchdog reporters.
It’s important to know that these attacks aren’t just launched against a national press, a liberal or conservative press, a commercial press.
They are against anyone who works to bring you fair, fact-based, objective accounts so that you have reliable information and can act on your constitutional rights — so that you can voice your stories, cast your votes, be informed, live freely and well.
Criticism of media is fine, and needed. But it’s different when government officials systematically tear down the free press because they don’t like the facts it reports. Then they are working to limit your ability to know what your government is doing.
Thirteen years after we adopted the First Amendment, Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Tyler, “No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”
We’re not going to shut up. We’re going to keep reporting so that you can read what you want, make your own judgments, and question a government that works for you. That’s the basis of our freedom, our economy, our way of life.
So don’t be faked out by claims of fake news. It’s out there, no doubt. But so are many more reliable news sources dedicated to reason and truth. Dozens of public service newsrooms that commit to high ethical standards are listed in the INN member directory. Or commit to your local newspaper, radio newscast, television broadcaster. If you think an outlet’s coverage is off-base, reach out and question it, contribute news and commentary, point out a mistake when they make one. Reporters and editors want to hear from you.
The “news media” isn’t some monolithic thing. It’s a voice of your community, and you can be part of it. We hope you will. Because a free press doesn’t belong to the President. It belongs to you.