In defense of media and the public trust

By Joseph T. O’Connor

For the past year, I’ve been working as a freelance journalist writing articles and editing while consulting for a weekly paper in Newport, Rhode Island, called Newport This Week.

When The Boston Globe called for newsrooms around the country to unite by publishing editorials today denouncing President Donald Trump’s assertions that the news media is the “enemy of the people,” I gave it some hard thought: Will these words change hearts and minds? Will they serve to reinforce the Trump administration’s view that the American press corps is coordinating a conspiracy against the president? In short, will they matter in this polarized nation?

Two days ago I received an answer. On Aug. 14, Igor Ispanovic walked into the Newport This Week office where I was editing a story. Igor is a 21-year-old Serbian journalism student working as a housekeeper and barback in Newport this summer as part of the international J-1 Visa program. He wore jeans and Vans and a white T-shirt bearing a Russian inscription in red lettering. He wanted to see an American newsroom.

As a kid barely old enough to buy a beer in the U.S., Igor came across as sharp, inquisitive and hungry for the truth. As a journalist, cutting his teeth in a republic that just 12 years ago became independent and is drifting ever closer to authoritarianism, he was inspiring.

I listened to Igor speak about state propaganda, about an administration that controls much of the media; what Serbians read, see and hear through their news outlets. What I heard was disturbing.

In spring of 2017, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) bought the front pages of six out of seven major newspapers in the country, offering as much as 1 million dinars, or roughly $10,000, for one front page. Plastered on Page 1 of each publication was the same campaign poster for their man, Aleksandar Vucic, who was Serbia’s prime minister at the time. The propagandist media blitz came on the final day of the presidential campaign. Vucic won the presidency.

“In Serbia we have a thing called ‘silence before election,’” Igor said. “The presidential election is Sunday, so no media can cover the election Friday or Saturday leading up to the vote.”

According to the Serbian media outlet, Insajder (Insider), an independent, investigative online journalism site, national TV stations also revealed bias toward the future president leading up to Election Day.

“Analysis of the National TV daily ‘Pink’ showed that Vucic received more than 17,000 seconds [of air time], compared to the second [closest candidate] Vojislav Seselj–65 seconds, and in the last two weeks of the campaign nobody except Vucic had a direct statement in that diary,” read one Isajder article from March 30, 2017.

Insajder journalists live and work by the motto: “There can be no compromise in the pursuit of truth,” according to its website, insajder.net. As an American journalist, I strive for that same goal: truth. So do many of my colleagues.

The journalists I know and trust do the legwork. They look at stories from multiple angles to understand and write the truth; they discern nuance and convey well-rounded, accurate stories to the American people. We aren’t always 100-percent right but we try to be, and correct inaccuracies as soon as possible. Not every journalist or news organization does their due diligence. And that’s where you and I come in.

As American citizens, we must learn to think critically about the information we are receiving. That means vetting news organizations, reporters, websites and social media. Dissect the information, look at it from multiple angles, and make decisions for yourself. Avoid the echo chamber by reading articles from news outlets you might normally avoid. “Do the work,” as a journalist professor of mine once said.

Among other freedoms, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution embraces and protects a free press. Without this protection, and if this administration and the American public do not support the words in this governing document, we face the same future as Serbia or Eritrea or North Korea, or any other authoritarian state where the powerful repress the public by suppressing the media. “It’s not dark yet,” Bob Dylan wrote, “but it’s getting there.”

On a near-daily basis, President Trump and his administration attacks the American mainstream media. Trump called U.S. news media, including ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and The New York Times, “the enemy of the people,” and claims journalists spread “fake news.” At conferences and rallies, reporters are denounced and screamed at, the prospect of violence rising with each event.

I can tell you this: Journalists will continue our work in pursuit of the truth and the trust of the American people. We will stand by it and we will stand up for it.

My chance interaction with young journalist Igor Ispanovic, in my mind, plays back like a cautionary tale. It’s not difficult to draw parallels between what is in Serbia and what could be in America if we aren’t careful. The distrust runs deep, spreading like a fault line and fracturing the American narrative and our collective national spirit.

As Igor made his way out the door of the NTW newsroom, I asked him to translate the Russian words on his T-shirt. “Joy Division,” he said.

Joseph T. O’Connor is a freelance journalist in Greater Boston, and the former editor of Explore Big Sky newspaper and Mountain Outlaw magazine.