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Viewpoints: Fourth Estate helps keep our government in check

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from an address Sen. Charles E. Schumer delivered April 13 to the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

By Charles E. Schumer

Good evening everyone, and thank you all for being here. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to be here with you this evening, because I have such respect and admiration for the press … and particularly the work CUNY does in training the next generation of reporters.

CUNY’s work – your work – is more important than ever before. A strong and robust Fourth Estate is more important now than ever before – because the very foundations of journalism are under attack.

These attacks have come in two forms. The first is economic.

With the advent of Twitter and Facebook and social media, consumers expect their news instantaneously and they often expect it to be free.

Now that there are other cheaper ways to get news, subscriptions and newsstand sales have fallen. In the same vein, there are now cheaper and more directed ways to advertise than through newspapers, so ad revenue has fallen, too. These two things together have had major economic ramifications for journalism at large, and newsrooms across the country have struggled to make the necessary adjustments to keep up with the times.

None of this is “news” to you, as you would say – but I’d like to point out an area where it’s particularly troubling to me – and that’s the impact these economic forces have had on smaller markets, in middle-sized and smaller cities. The most striking example I’ve seen is in upstate New York. In Elmira, in the Southern Tier of New York, they used to have eight reporters covering a variety of topics at one of their major news outlets; now they have one or two people doing it all. If that person can’t show up to an event, the news goes uncovered – and the people of Elmira are worse off for it.

For generations, the local newspapers and television stations have always been the glue that keeps these communities together and informed. In a big city, there are many interlocking layers of civic life: whether they’re social clubs, religious groups, sports teams, civic organizations.

But in many smaller cities and towns, the local paper is the most robust civic-minded organization in that community. Just anecdotally, I’ve noticed that cities with strong, successful papers – like Buffalo with The Buffalo News – tend to do a lot better economically and they even have a more cohesive social structure. So I have particular concern that smaller papers and smaller networks are being squeezed out of the picture: forced to downsize, reorganize and do a lot more with a lot less.

I don’t know how to solve this broader economic problem for newspapers big and small. The only antidote I have seen to work is the rarer and rarer presence of generous, civic-minded families and individuals who own news outlets for the right reasons. They do so not simply to maximize profits, although profit is still important, but because they feel a deep-seated obligation to advance journalism for the greater benefit of us all.

Fortunately we still have some of these individuals and families who guide news operations that can adapt to these rapid changes without compromising the integrity of their papers. Their commitment to the cause has helped sustain the kind of great, grand journalism that our country relies on.

The second problem that journalism faces is a far more menacing one: There is now a concerted effort to assault and destroy the credibility of our news organizations. This isn’t just an economic force that naturally came along and changed the industry – this is a pernicious undertaking that, by design, would undermine perhaps the most bedrock principle of American democracy.

This problem, like the economic problem I mentioned, is an outgrowth of the new media landscape that emerged in the internet era. Technology allowed the media universe to splinter. There are a seemingly infinite number of smaller online outlets, some of which do important niche reporting, but many of which are hyperpartisan media outlets whose sole purpose is to market news to a specific political demographic. Each outlet has its own facts; some of them are “alternative facts.”

It used to be in America that we had a national town hall every night at 6 o’clock with the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts. You watched CBS if you liked Cronkite, or NBC if you preferred Huntley-Brinkley. But regardless of what channel we chose, we all got the same information; everyone started with the same common base of facts that helped us relate to each other at the water cooler.

The same went for major newspapers, echoing Arthur Miller’s famous quip that “a good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.” Well, times have changed and our nation is no longer talking to itself – we’re not even speaking the same language anymore.

There has been a great balkanization of the news media. The hard-right has promoted this balkanization for decades, better than anyone, cultivating its own network of partisan media outlets … walking right up to the line of blurring fact and non-fact.

But this has allowed the Steve Bannons of the world to cross the line into the most dangerous of territory. Bannon and his ilk go one step further. Their goal is not only to serve a partisan cause … their goal is to discredit all media altogether; to say to the American people that all news is false … “fake news.” Ultimately, their goal is a world in which Breitbart News and the New York Times are viewed by the vast majority of the public as having the same level of credibility – namely none. Their goal is to have a world where facts and truth make no difference to an argument.

It’s a self-serving goal. A free and independent and robust media will always be a natural check on power. So they seek to discredit it. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, the conservative radio host Charlie Sykes said that this attack helps the very powerful insulate themselves from criticism, from the place that provided it best, the media. It allows them to create their own narratives, metrics and facts. Sykes writes that when “inundated with ‘alternative facts,’ many voters will simply shrug, asking, ‘What is truth?’ – and not wait for an answer.”

That is one of the most, if not the most serious problem facing our democracy, my friends. If the American people one day equate news outlets that helped expose Watergate and the Pentagon Papers with those that knowingly and deliberately traffic in falsehoods and lies, it could inundate our democracy and well mean the end of America as we know it.

When the Founding Fathers got together in Constitution Hall, they engaged in debate that was fact-based. That’s what town hall meetings have been throughout American history. That’s what we in Congress are supposed to do every day. But when we all stop operating from the same baseline of facts, we won’t ever be able to agree or compromise or make progress. Our government would cease to function.

Throughout history, the Fourth Estate has always kept our government in check when it’s gone astray, perhaps more than anywhere else around the world. We rely on reporters and newscasters to keep our leaders honest, accountable and always working in the best interest of the American people.

As Lyndon Johnson said, “an informed mind is the guardian genius of democracy.” That’s what good journalism does – it informs. It establishes facts. It sets the terms of debate. In that way, it is like a guardrail for our democracy – keeping us from swerving over the cliff.

And therein lies the answer. The answer to the problem of bad journalism will always be good journalism. The kind that helps the American public parse the “facts” they hear from other media, which helps us see through complex, convoluted issues and get past the rhetoric. Good journalism that reports the facts, informs the public and elevates the political dialogue in America.

Though we live in troubling times, I truly believe that America always solves its problems. Combating these attacks on journalism is no exception.

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