New York Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger received the New England First Amendment Coalition’s 2020 Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award on Feb. 7. The following is an excerpt of the remarks he delivered.
I started my journalism career as a reporter for The Providence Journal. The paper assigned a reporter to every town and city in the state, and I was lucky enough to learn the ropes in one of those jobs.
Town reporter is not the most glamorous job in journalism. I went to town council meetings on Mondays and school board meetings on Wednesdays. I called the police department every morning to learn what happened overnight. But it’s not an exaggeration to say that original reporting at the local level is crucial to our democracy.
In most of the country, the kind of reporting I did in Narragansett no longer exists. Original, on-the-ground reporting — the kind of reporting built on a deep understanding of people, places, and issues . . . the kind of reporting that requires time, resources, and the steadfast support of journalistic institutions (and sometimes their lawyers ) . . . the kind of reporting that provides the common facts that bind communities together and the oversight to hold leaders accountable. That kind of reporting is disappearing as the news industry continues its long, heartbreaking collapse.
You’ve all felt the impact of that collapse. You’ve felt it inside newsrooms, as friends and colleagues lose jobs they loved. You’ve felt it in your hands, in ever-thinning local papers. And you’ve felt it in your communities, which are steadily more disconnected and divided.
We all know the two main factors behind this collapse — one connected to how publishers fund news and one connected to how people find it. The advertising-based business model that supported American newsrooms buckled, causing the rapid loss of more than half the journalism jobs in the country and leaving news organizations struggling to pay for original reporting in the public interest. Meanwhile, the tech platforms became the most powerful distributors of news and information in human history, straining the direct relationship between journalist and reader that is essential for maintaining trust and loyalty. As a result, readers are increasingly unsure of what news is and where it comes from, making it easier for bad actors to unleash a flood of misinformation that has corrupted public understanding.
This is the moment when I’m supposed to pivot and say that things are looking up. The truth is, they’re getting worse. That’s because there’s another existential threat to journalism today, and far too few of us are talking about it.
We’re losing popular support for the free press in this country. Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed the most sustained attack on the legitimacy of journalism in our history. It’s an attack with catchphrases plucked from the mouths of tyrants and dictators. “Fake news.” “Enemies of the people.” “Traitors.” And a growing portion of the country believes these dangerous, misleading accusations.
Trust in independent news is evaporating and cleaving. A majority of Republicans now think the news media is better characterized as “the enemy of the people” than as “an important part of democracy.” More than 80 percent would rather get their news directly from President Trump than from the media. And there is evidence that skepticism of journalism is expanding across the political spectrum. A majority of Americans, regardless of party, do not trust the media to report the news “fully, accurately, and fairly.” And, perhaps as a result, nearly a third believe the government should be able to shut down news organizations.
With the news industry already struggling, this erosion of popular support for the press poses a threat not only to journalists and journalism but also to the very notion of truth and the health of our democracy. We’ve already seen influential individuals, companies, and even nations exploit the trust vacuum to serve their own interests. It’s the powerful, not the people, who benefit from a weakened press.
One of the lessons of the last few years is that our country’s institutions and norms are more fragile than we had assumed. And while law and precedent are valuable shields, public support for the principles of free expression and a free press is what gives them their enduring power. Look at Turkey or Hungary or India to see how quickly things can change when a society stops fighting for its democratic institutions.
So this is our task, all of us in this room. We must convince people that the free press is worth fighting for.
It’s not enough to talk airily about holding power to account. We can’t just assert the importance of bearing witness. It is time to stop talking about the First Amendment as an abstraction. Instead, we have to make powerful, practical arguments rooted in the lives of people and communities.
Here’s a start. The free press lets you know how your tax dollars are spent. The free press makes sure that your kid’s health isn’t jeopardized by contaminated water. The free press makes sure that the hospital you visit isn’t spreading antibiotic-resistant germs.
The free press makes sure that the planes you fly in, the pharmacies you rely on, the banks that safeguard your savings are worthy of your trust. The free press shows how climate change may threaten your home and, if the worst happens, why your insurer may not be there to help.
The free press ensures you are protected by a justice system that jails the guilty and frees the innocent. The free press helps you make an informed decision about who to support for county clerk and who to support for president.
In a country with a free press, a new and deadly virus is promptly acknowledged and addressed, not hidden by the government until it becomes an international pandemic. No democratic country with a free press has ever suffered from a famine.
I think we can all agree that the press isn’t perfect. We make mistakes, sometimes big ones. And when we do, we own up to them, and we strive to do better. But the imperfections of journalism make it no less essential.
At a moment when support for the press is fracturing along ideological lines, we must remind people why enshrining it in the First Amendment was one of the few areas of true consensus among the nation’s founders and why it remained so through our history. If you’re a conservative, I’d remind you that the free press protects against government corruption and overreach, provides businesses and entrepreneurs with the reliable information that fuels economic growth, and helps spread democracy around the world. If you’re a liberal, I’d remind you that the free press provides the scrutiny that keeps corporate power in check, interrogates the true impact of American interventions abroad, and makes sure that everyone, especially the little guy, has a voice.
A detailed, compelling accounting of the value of the free press is an essential message to share. But we’ve been delinquent messengers, taking far too long even to recognize that the message needs to be delivered.
Of course, as we make the popular case for the First Amendment, we have to keep fighting to fortify its legal framework. Across Democratic and Republican administrations, legal efforts have attempted to weaken safeguards for journalists and their sources. Activists, many politically motivated, are increasingly seeking to punish outlets for publishing unflattering information. These trends threaten decades of hard-won legal precedent. So we need to keep filing FOIA requests, battling libel lawsuits, pushing for whistle-blower protections, and doing all we can to defend the public’s right to know.
To keep the First Amendment strong, we need to not only defend it in court but also convince our friends and neighbors why it matters to them on a personal level. They may not get a newspaper delivered to their doorstep, but the stakes of this struggle already reach inside their home.
If we’ve learned anything from the experience of the last few years — and from the struggles of our colleagues reporting in repressive nations around the world — it’s that we cannot take the free press for granted. And nothing is more perilous to a free society than when the public loses its reliable sources of information.