Pundits and politicians have readily eulogized the death of the First Amendment free speech protections in communities across the country, declaring that safe spaces and trigger warnings have dealt free speech its death knell.
While free speech protections have not faced the fatal attacks some fear, journalistic organizations have withstood assaults on their freedom over the past decade. President Donald Trump and those in his administration have clearly expressed their disregard for press freedom protections.
Trump has explicitly derided and threatened journalists on nuerous occasions. He called the press at his campaign events “scum” and he declared that he would change libel laws to attenuate negative press coverage, the American Civil Liberties Union reports. Additionally, he stated that he would potentially revoke broadcast licenses for televised news programs he didn’t like and he urged someone to buy The New York Times to change its coverage, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Moreover, a 2017 poll from The Economist and YouGov found that almost half of Republicans surveyed agreed that the government should have the power to shut down media outlets in certain circumstances, according to Vox.
While there has been a partisan split on this issue, it is not all encompassing. Former President Barack Obama used the Espionage Act in an unprecedented way to punish the sources that reporters used, thus clamping down on press coverage, according to the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
Despite efforts from the Oval Office, attacks on the press have become much more insidious as multiple local papers have significantly reduced their reporting, changed direction or even closed down completely due to new ownership or declining readership.
The examples are endless and indicate a need for change. Right-wing investors bought Los Angeles’s popular alternative newspaper LA Weekly and laid off staffers to allegedly alter coverage in December 2017, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. In addition, billionaire Joe Ricketts acquired a series of local news websites that covered neighborhoods in cities like Chicago, San Francisco and New York City, The New York Times reports. Then Ricketts abruptly shut all the sites down following the writers’ vote to unionize in October 2017, according to The New York Times.
The Denver Post, a Pulitzer Prize-winning daily newspaper in Colorado, faced a takeover by a hedge fund that expunged the staff of dozens of reporters since 2013. The Denver Post publicized its own takeover by a hedge fund from New York City in an editorial where it attempted to open its readers’ eyes.
“The smart money is that in a few years The Denver Post will be rotting bones. And a major city in an important political region will find itself without a newspaper,” the editorial argues. “It’s time for those Coloradans who care most about their civic future to get involved and see to it that Denver gets the newsroom it deserves.”
Larger papers have not evaded the era of layoffs and cuts. The Chicago Tribune suffered dozens of layoffs at the hands of massive media consortium Tronc, according to NPR. The Los Angeles Times currently sits insecurely after billionaire doctor Patrick Shoon-Shiong bought the paper from that same organization, according to an opinion column from the Los Angeles Times.
The value of an independent and free press cannot be overstated. Not only do local papers uncover the misdoings of local elites that might not receive attention in bigger publications, but they also provide a sense of community.
Yet the scope of the problems for the press may seem unsolvable for a non-billionaire. Despite that appearance, there is much that even members of the Geneseo community can do to help local media.
Reading local newspapers like the Livingston County News, The Buffalo News, the Democrat & Chronicle and the Rochester Business Journal could help them stave off layoffs. A subscription may be beyond people’s budgets, but occasionally purchasing a copy of a paper at Walmart or reading articles online—without ad-blockers—couldn’t hurt.
Meanwhile, the machinations of billionaires and political elites in opposition to fair and independent coverage should concern practically every civic-minded individual. Press freedom protections were enshrined in the First Amendment for a reason.