Freedom of the press 

Dear Donald – 

Just down the street from your new digs, you’ll find a fairly unique museum, dedicated fully to the freedom of the press and the business of good journalism. One of the permanent exhibits there is a world map showing the freedom of the press around the world. As of last year, they estimated that only 17% of the world’s population lived in a country with a truly free press, meaning that they could print what they wanted without fear of government intervention or reprisal. The U.S. shows up as green on that map. I’m afraid that you may be laying the groundwork for a downgrade in the next few years. 

The press plays a vital role in holding those in power to account. When they are functioning well, they provide necessary and important information to the public about the nature and functioning of the world around them. They provide the facts necessary for informed decision-making in a democracy. 

That’s why it’s such a problem when opinions or outright lies become substitutes for facts, when stories we don’t like become “fake,” and when we can isolate ourselves into echo chambers that wall us off from uncomfortable realities. The ground has shifted under the news media over the last two decades as the proliferation of media outlets and news options has led to large scale market segmentation. Whereas in years past there were only a handful of well-regarded sources for the news, now someone can choose from literally hundreds of sources. Now, we can pick our news, and that has created fractures in the populace and a lack of common understanding about important issues. It was only a matter of time before someone drove a wedge in those cracks and kept hammering until something broke. 

And that’s where we are today. Our system is, in many ways, fundamentally broken. The fragmentation of data sources has led to individuals of opposing ideologies working with completely different sets of facts than each other, meaning that there is really no hope of reaching a good solution. In a rush to get news directly from the source, we’ve cut out the intermediaries who can put those pieces of information into context for us, or even tell us if they were outright lies. For so long, the media have operated according to certain unwritten codes of conduct and expectations for behavior. When you walk in and completely ignore those norms, trey struggle to effectively respond. You can see it in how long it took them to figure out how to cover you (and they still don’t quite have it down). 

When the people don’t have a reliable source for information, they become susceptible to deception. Your attacks on the validity of traditional news sources has undermined public confidence in them and made a certain segment of the population convinced that they can’t be trusted. As a result, they open themselves to believing claims of a Bowling Green Massacre or a phantom terror attack in Sweden. The worst part is that you’re not even a good consumer of news yourself. You’ve repeatedly parroted talking points from cable news just moments after they air without any meaningful thought or introspection. Your claims about the events in Sweden on Friday were actually a reference to a Tucker Carlson segment on Fox News on Friday, not any actual event or any reporting of an actual event. 

You’ve already, in many ways, undermined the credibility of the press with your supporters. The next step is to actually prevent the press from reporting negative stories at all, cutting off all negative stories. Last week, it appears that Jared started to lay the groundwork for just that. In a meeting with the executive vice president of Time Warner Cable, Jared made a point to complain about the coverage of you on CNN, which is owned by Time Warner. While there has been no clear reporting of an “ask” from Jared, the problems should be clear. At a minimum, Jared was implying hat something within this executive’s control was displeasing to the White House, and the implication from there is that access and favors may be contingent on resolving those problems. 

This becomes even more concerning when you factor in an $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner by AT&T currently under review by the Justice Department.  Executives and corporations have a lot to earn if that acquisition goes through. Did Jared’s comment leave an impression that your Administration’s position might change as a result of how Time Warner handles CNN?  Your position already has changed between the campaign and the transition. What’s to say it wouldn’t change again?  

It’s also important to remember that an actual ask isn’t necessary for there o be actions taken. If a business even perceives the possibility of a better regulatory environment if they take a particular action, they likely will. We saw the same process at play with your trademark dispute in China – the explicit trade-off needn’t be discussed as long as everyone understands the stakes. 

Attacking the media for unflattering (but true) reports about you, limiting press access both physically and by not taking questions during press availabilities, exploiting market segmentation to spread lies for your own benefit, and using your office to create a friendly regulatory environment for the parent companies willing to silence their press organizations all create a chilling effect on the media. And when they go silent, citizens will have nowhere to access honest and real information about the functioning of their democracy and the behavior of those in power. 

My fear is that, years from now, I’ll take my son to the Newseum and see the United States shaded in red. 

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