The fourth estate is in peril 


Last June, semi-retired newsman Dan Rather wrote on Facebook, "I felt a shudder down my spine yesterday watching Donald Trump's fusillade against the press. This is not a moment to be trifled with. It wasn't his first tirade and it won't be his last."

Fast-forward nine months, and unfortunately Rather, who has launched a social media initiative and website called "News and Guts," was oh so right.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Trump continues to refer to The New York Times as "failing" — never mind that the newspaper and its website total more than 3 million subscribers. This administration throws around "fake news" accusations at every report they don't agree with. Sure, some of it might be biased reporting, but fake news it's not. The Onion? That's fake news. The New York Times, CNN? Not fake.

Mark Twain said never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel. Trump has picked a fight with the media — his use of pixels seems to be a real threat to barrels of ink.

The battle, however, is far from over.

While the models of media continue to change, one thing has not changed and that's the importance of journalism. Thanks to Trump, journalism is more important than it's been in decades.

Trump calls many reporters "dishonest." That's laughable. Journalists on the whole might not be the most likable people, but dishonest they are not. I will never forget the words of a former editor who said the reason she pursued a career in journalism was her passion for the truth.

When I was still a young journalist, I was lucky to meet another editor who influenced my approach to journalism. Steven Smith was the editor at the daily newspaper when I was hired to edit a computer magazine. (He's also father to the Independent's own Alissa Smith. "Someday my sole claim to any sort of reputation in this business will be as her father," he says.)

Steve Smith introduced me to the idea of civic journalism. Also known as public journalism, this movement sought to integrate journalism more deeply into the democratic process. Instead of just informing audiences, civic journalism is about listening and engaging audiences in public debate. Traditional journalism presented many issues as black and white; civic journalism explores the gray. The trend didn't exactly catch on, as critics were concerned about the loss of objectivity in the approach.

"If the industry had learned anything about deep community listening from those times," says Smith, "we might have avoided this whole mess."

Smith says the Trump administration has breathed new life into the fundamental role of journalism — the watchdog role. He left daily journalism seven years ago to start teaching at the University of Idaho. "It's the only time since I left the business, I wish I was back," he says.

"We are sitting on a knife edge and things could go either way," Smith says. "As a profession we will make ourselves proud."

Whether the public will rally around the media and understand the value that the Fourth Estate provides is another story. "I don't know if there's enough faith in what we do to support us," Smith says. Missteps along the way will challenge the public's faith. He thinks that last week's reporting on Trump's 2005 tax returns by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow was one of those stumbles. "It was a disaster that fuels the fake news narrative," he says.

Smith describes an existential threat to the press and our democratic systems because this administration has no respect for the free flow of information. He believes the First Amendment is in danger. He predicts that as the administration attempts to find those who leak information, journalists will pay the price. "Journalists," he says, "will go to jail soon."

I was with student journalists last month when news came that Trump was banning The New York Times and CNN from a daily briefing. One student was horrified. It didn't bother me. Real news doesn't come from press pools, where reporters are carted around and spoon-fed information. Banning reporters from that could be the best thing to happen to journalism today. Reporters will have to leave that comfort zone and actually report.

Dan Rather ended his June Facebook post with this: "Good journalism — the kind that matters — requires reporters who won't back up, back down, back away or turn around when faced with efforts to intimidate them. It also requires owners and other bosses with guts, who stand by and for their reporters when the heat is on."

Not even 100 days into the administration, the heat is on.

It's time for journalism to prove its worth.

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