American journalists and journalism prof Dan Gillmor gave the keynote address to the Congress of Journalists of Catalonia (Spain) last week. He chose as his theme free speech, the Donald Trump victory and the need for journalists to be activists.
And please note, this is a speech about a basic American value: Freedom of Speech/Press, presented by an American to a Spanish group of journalists. This is a discussion that is not limited to the States.
You can read the whole speech at Gillmor’s website.
Here are some key points:
I have three goals this morning.
First, to give you my impressions of how journalism performed during this election campaign. The short answer is that journalism failed, with some exceptions.
My second goal is to help you understand why I believe the Trump presidency could well be a turning point – a negative one – for free speech and other fundamental liberties in my country. That would have impact far beyond our shores.
Finally, I want to ask journalists – here and in America and everywhere – to be activists.
Activists for freedom of expression, among the liberties that are at the core of societies where freedom is an institution, not just a word.
Activists for media literacy, the foundation of which is critical thinking.
Our media organizations helped create the climate for someone like Trump to succeed. They’ve been selling fear for decades. For example, in America, at a time the lowest crime rates in many decades, our media have persuaded the public that the risk of being a victim is higher than ever. The risk of any individual person in America becoming a victim is terrorism is exceedingly low, but our media have persuaded the public that the opposite is true.
Trump drew audiences, which boosted ratings, and advertisers sent money. The head of CBS, one of the US media companies that profited wildly from Trump, will be infamous forever for what he said at a business conference early this year: “The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
This leader of business said, most infamously, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
If American journalism dies in the next few years, those words should be carved on the tombstone marking the grave.
I emphasize that there was some great work. In fact, if you compiled all the excellent campaign journalism, you’d have a long list–including some work from newer online outlets–that would make you proud as a journalist. But the good stuff was swamped by the flood of mediocrity and awfulness that dominated.
I want to praise one journalist in particular. David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post gave a one-man demonstration of how journalism should work. He deserves and will win a 2017 Pulitzer Prize, unless the Pulitzer judges are sound asleep when they look at his work.
Many liberties are in jeopardy, but I will focus mostly here on ones that involve freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
It is clear that Trump actually loves media – when it’s helping to promote him or his business interests. But he plainly hates actual journalism about him, and has promised to do things – and has already done some of them — that would directly and indirectly threaten what journalists do. He has sued at least one journalist not because of inaccuracies but because he wanted to punish the writer financially by forcing him and his publisher to spend money on lawyers. He’s been clear that he’ll appoint judges who might sharply restrict journalistic freedom. There is much more, but I believe it is accurate to call Trump an enemy of journalism, and now he’s in a position where he can do extraordinary damage.
Journalists have to recognize that on some issues, they have to become activists. There is no alternative.
I recognize that in many parts of this world, journalists are activists by definition—because truth telling in repressive societies is an act designed to bring about change. I’m humbled by the people who risk their freedom, and sometimes their lives, to tell their fellow citizens and the rest of the world what is happening where they live.
In the western democracies with a more robust tradition of free speech and a free press, the idea of journalists as activists is often seen as taking sides, and violating journalistic norms. But there’s a long and honorable history of what we call “advocacy journalism” exposing injustices with the goal of of bringing about change.
Free speech starts at the edges of the networks, and ultimately that is where it is heard.
And – this is so important – we need to be spreading the concept of media literacy to everyone who will listen. This is, above all, about developing skills for critical thinking – being skeptical, using judgment, asking questions, ranging widely for information; and more. People need a refuge from the misinformation, and context to understand what is really going on.
Journalists should the leading teachers of media literacy. The ones who do journalism with integrity will be among the biggest beneficiaries, because they’ll foster much more trust in their own work – and one of the things people pay for in this world is products and services they trust.
Journalists, and journalism, are under attack around the world. I wasn’t happy with President Obama’s harsh attitude toward leaks that assisted essential national security journalism. But we’ll probably look back on his tenure as a time of overt support for journalism compared to the Trump regime.
Core freedoms – of expression, association, and more – should be everyone’s right. Media literacy is everyone’s duty. Journalists, and journalism educators like me, have a duty to be their active defenders, and explainers.
Otherwise we’ll live in a world of choke points and control by others – and Donald Trump surely craves control. Otherwise we’ll live in a world where lies are as plausible as truth because the public that doesn’t know how to tell the difference – and based on this campaign that’s the world Trump prefers, too.