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Killing the Free Press!

The safest way to ensure diversity of opinion is diverse ownership. But this ideal has been sacrificed by our government - Ben Bagdikian.

The last time a president appeared in the James Brady Press Room

By Brian J. Karem

She walked up to me and told me she’d gotten “out of the bubble,” and visited some “real people in Missouri” to see where they were on the issues.

“Where in Missouri?” I asked.

“Rural Missouri.”

“Where in rural Missouri?” I asked.

“Popular Bluff,” she told me.

“Poplar Bluff,” I said. “Not Popular.”

“Well maybe that’s how the locals pronounce it . . .” she answered.

“No. It’s Poplar,” I said.

“How would you know?”

“I’ve been there.”

“You’ve been there?” The woman looked at me as if I’d told her I’d been to the moon.

“Well my wife is from rural Missouri and I went to the University of Missouri, and as I said, I’ve been there a few times. Yeah.”

Finally it was settled to the young reporter’s satisfaction. But the conversation was nonetheless informative. In trying to tell me how well-rounded she was as a reporter, she only convinced me of the opposite.


H.L. Mencken noted it nearly a hundred years ago when he wrote about White House reporters, “They come in as newspapermen,” Mencken said. “Trained to get the news and eager to get it; they end as tinhorn statesmen, full of dark secrets and unable to write the truth if they tried.” It isn’t that they’re lazy, but that they are ignorant. The enterprise and bellicosity the job demands isn’t in them. They slide supinely into the estate and dignity of a golf player. “American journalism suffers from too many golf players,” Mencken warned us.

He was silent on the subject of Presidents playing golf.

“We’re gutless. We’re Spineless,” CBS’s Dan Rather told the Boston Herald in September 1991. “There’s no joy in saying this, but beginning in the 1980s, the American press by and large somehow began to operate on the theory that the first order of business was to be popular with the person, or organization or institution that you cover.”

Sam Donaldson noted, “I’m not advocating rudeness . . . but I’m far more concerned about the reporters who are either too afraid or too disinclined to ask a question.”

Dan and Sam come from a time when people like Helen Thomas would routinely walk through the West Wing and into the press offices and banged on the door to the press secretary’s office to demand answers to tough questions. She was gruff. They all were tough. The president didn’t like it. But the president and his surrogates accepted reporters were doing a job that had to be done.

Rather and others claim sometime in the 1980s it changed.

My own experiences show this to be true. First in 1991, in trying to question George Herbert Walker Bush about the ongoing “Drug War,” he told me he wasn’t used to being questioned so roughly.

For my efforts I got fired.

Helen Thomas told me later she feared our profession was headed for worse. She was routinely called “boorish” and “rude.” She defended the press for years and told me and others, that if you’re going into journalism to be loved, then you should find another way to make a living. About presidents she said, “They don't understand that the presidential news conference is the only forum in our society where a president can be questioned. If he's not questioned, he can rule by edict; by government order. He can be a monarch. He can be a dictator, and who is to find out? No. He should be questioned and he should always be able to willingly reply and answer to all questions because these aren't our questions. They're the people's questions.”

Carl Rowan noted, “Reporters ought to press a president when they know that he is stonewalling and misleading them and the public. And this goes for presidents of every political and ideological label.”

Rowan said every newsman in Washington and “everywhere else” needed to “search their consciences and ask, “Am I being aggressive enough? Am I being manipulated by the White House?”[i]

In the current Trump administration the press corps battles daily against an administration that routinely doesn’t return phone calls, emails, and seldom brings the president out before the open press. As of this writing, more than two years after he has taken office, Donald Trump has never set foot inside the James Brady press briefing room for a press briefing. He stepped inside once for about a minute. Trey Yingst, now of FOX and then of OAN television tried to ask the president a couple of questions before Trump ducked back into the press offices and left the press corps agog with speculation: “What the Hell was that all about?”

There have been no further sightings of Trump in that room since that random occurrence, at the beginning of 2018 and the last presidential press briefing occurred in the last days of the Barack Obama administration.


How did we end up in this truly terrifying place where reporters are seen as the enemy of the people by the president and a sizable portion of the populace? How is it those who try to get at the truth are now fodder for threats meaning some of us have body guards before we go to presidential political events, or if we merely wish to go to work? How is it we have reporters who seem unable or unwilling to gather facts? Why do some members of the public think we pick sides - right or left?

There is a detailed story to tell of how the government systematically destroyed the Fourth Estate’s independence - aided and abetted by the hubris of media managers and reporters - often times without their knowledge and sometimes with it.

It begins with an FCC chairman, Mark S. Fowler, who under the Reagan administration deregulated the television industry. The airwaves, often thought of as a public trust, became a commodity to be sold “Like toasters.” It was the removal of the fairness doctrine. It was the telecommunications act of 1996. It was the Patriot Act. It was an administration that used the espionage act nine times to prosecute whistle blowers. It was Democrats and Republicans.

Beginning with Ronald Reagan and with every president since, it has been the goal of government to destroy the free press.

We are left today with a small number of companies owning the majority of what we see, read or hear. Vast parts of the government never see the eyes of an independent observer. In 1984 around 100,000 people lived in Laredo, Texas. The city had two English language papers, three network affiliated television stations with news staffs, several radio stations that also had news staffs, and at least one newspaper, television and radio station providing Spanish language coverage.

Today there are 300,000 people living in the area with only one television newsroom, and one newspaper.

Government deregulation led to this sordid state of affairs. Ben Bagdikian warned about this in his 1983 Book The Media Monopoly. As Andrew Hacker observed in his review of the first edition of The Media Monopoly: “Thus the real thesis of The Media Monopoly is that the United States has become a corporate state, with its own ‘Private Ministry of Information and Culture’ (Mr. Bagdikian’s phrase) intent on erasing the capacity for discerning thought.”

The Courier Journal and Louisville Times are a good example of constriction in the newspaper industry. Once a family owned newspaper with bureaus in several major cities, countries and in Washington D.C., it was sold to Gannett in the 80s. That company slowly shuttered those bureaus. The two newspapers once had a combined circulation in the hundreds of thousands. It was often cited as one of the best newspapers in the country. Gannett employed cost-cutting measures to make the newspaper more profitable. The Times closed and today the Courier Journal resembles a shopper. Its circulation is falling. It’s reporting staff is underpaid, overworked and overwhelmed.

Across the country we are left with a pale shadow of what the press used to be as corporate boards struggle to make a profit - sometimes failing to utilize innovations in delivering news via the Internet and always failing to understand that vetted facts are the coin of the realm no matter how that news is delivered. Today corporations frown upon copy editors, news editors and city editors as unneeded and expensive redundancies, while it is those employees who provide the hard fact-checking needed to guarantee the value of the product being delivered to the public.

It is akin to a car dealer trying to sell a car without an engine.

Newspapers and television stations also employ one other measure to save money. While prior to deregulation newspapers and television stations prided themselves on hiring and promoting reporters and producers with experience, that all changed when media companies decided to save money and increase profits.

Instead of needing experience to cover complex institutions and government agencies, newspapers and television stations began cutting both the number of reporters covering government and also began hiring younger reporters because they were cheaper.

The result has been that much of our federal government no longer sees any reporting at all and those who cover everything from the White House to the Senate and U.S. House of Representatives do not have the institutional knowledge or practical experience needed to handle the job they’ve been entrusted to perform. Nor do the fewer numbers of reporters get a chance to cover everything on their beat.

During the last 30 years as the press has slowly disintegrated, the need for news has not dissipated. So, here we are.


Where are we?

In June of 2017 and nearly a year later, in 2018 I challenged the Trump administration in the White House briefing room. The first time it was as Sarah Huckabee Sanders called us all “Fake News” and then encouraged us to watch a real faked news video in order to understand President Donald Trump.

In a room full of broadcasters and reporters I was either vilified or cheered. My central message the first time I engaged the administration is “reporters do not matter.” Anyone can change the channel or put down their newspaper. All of us have to deal with the administration for the next four years. It is the issue that matters and how the president deals with an issue - not those who ask the questions.

Helen Thomas once said to me, “If you’re looking for love, you don’t want to be a journalist.”

But Helen also said that while she respected the office of the presidency, she never worshiped public servants. Tom Brokaw, who I had the privilege of meeting and speaking with during the first Gulf War, once told me without the press questioning a president the office of the presidency would be indistinguishable from that of a monarch - echoing Helen Thomas.

These are things I take to heart. The second time I got into a fight with the Trump administration it was over the question of “empathy” as the administration unrolled a strategy to separate children from their parents at the U.S. border.

The alt-right crowd called me a variety of names - some printable and some not. I laughed as someone accused me of being the “Hobo” of the media and not wearing shoes.

But the administration in both cases said I was trying to make it about me. I was rude. I was self-aggrandizing. I didn’t respect the president. I was the problem.

I have been there before. In 1991 Arnaud DeBorchgrave on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” said after I aggressively questioned President George Bush that he was concerned about my rudeness.

I was told the same thing when I asked President Trump to clarify where he got the statistics to declare an "emergency" on our Southern Border in a news conference. He told me to sit down. I asked the question.


To that end you must ask questions - especially painful ones. At the beginning of September, 2018 an op-ed by an anonymous source claiming to be inside the Trump administration told us adults were in the room and they were actively working to stifle some of President Trump’s more frightening impulses. The writer was describing a cabal; a soft coup.

As President Trump walked on the South Lawn to board Marine One the next day, I shouted out the only question this shocking op-ed brought to my mind. “Mr. President, who is in charge in the White House?”

After recent activities in the Middle East I asked President Trump, “Are we going to war with Iran?” He answered with three words. “I hope not.”

In both cases I was vilified or cheered and accused of trying to make it about me. It is never about me and never has been about the press no matter how much members of the administration try to make it so - and no matter how many times Kellyanne Conway stands in the White House drive way claiming it to be so.

The questions have to be asked. The truth is there are many reporters still at the White House who ask pointed, direct and intelligent questions. But for how much longer?

It has become increasingly more difficult to ask the president anything as the government - which complains the most about the lack of decent reporting, makes it harder and harder to accomplish that which elected officials claim they desire - decent reporting and transparency.

Trump, far from being an aberration of the norms, is the pinnacle of the last 35 years of deconstruction of the news industry.

The president increasingly only makes himself available as he departs the White House on the South Lawn rope line as he heads to Marine One for a departure. More than 100 reporters, camera operators, sound operators and producers fight for space that will comfortably only hold 20 people. There are fights, bruised feelings and anger. It matters not the president instigates this. We fight just trying to get a necessary question before the president. He doesn’t want us to ask questions. He works overtime to control the narrative, is thin-skinned and petulant. His staff does the same.

Donaldson, Thomas, Brokaw, Mencken, Edward R. Murrow, Rather and anyone who has made a name for themselves as reporters recognized the obvious - the institution of the press, in its attempt to question the activities of the president is often the only institution willing to buck trends and hold presidents accountable.

It has grown increasingly difficult to do so. “I think that presidents deserve to be questioned. Maybe irreverently, most of the time. Bring 'em down a size. You see a president, ask a question. You have one chance in the barrel. Don't blow it,” Helen Thomas warned.

But as the government has eviscerated the free press, the question now for the government, of, by and for the people is, “Have we blown it?”

The Free press is never free. Your average fast food manager makes more than most reporters - which tells you a lot about how the government has systematically destroyed the free press in the last 35 years.


[i] “Reporter Pays for taking freedom seriously” Newark Star Ledger, Friday, March 6, 1992 by Carl Rowan


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