President Donald Trump is running an incredibly forceful campaign to taint the media industry and its news product as “fake news,” denigrating the professionals providing that news as “enemies of the people.” Let’s take for granted, though, if you are reading this media outlet, you know the importance of professionally produced news content and the indispensable role an independent and free press plays in our constitutional democracy as protected by the First Amendment.
One cannot minimize the president’s success in destroying mainstream news brands’ credibility. A recent CBS News poll indicated that among Trump’s supporters (who remain a substantial segment of the population), when asked, “Who do you trust for accurate information?” 91 percent said Trump, 63 percent said friends and family, and 11 percent said the mainstream media. In a recent Ipsos/Daily Beast poll, 48 percent of Republicans agree that “the news media is the enemy of the American people.”
Strikingly, 26 percent of independents agree as well. Maybe even more striking, 43 percent of Republicans wanted to give the president the power to shutter “bad” media outlets.
Against this backdrop, where is the National Association of Broadcasters? Where is the National Cable Television Association? Where is the News Media Alliance (representing newspapers)? Where is the Internet Association? None of them are anywhere to be seen.
These organizations exist to advocate on behalf of their industries against adverse effects of government action. As a former counsel to the House Telecommunications Committee, which oversees the Federal Communications Commission and media industry issues, I can attest that these industries raise First Amendment concerns on the most trivial and obscure regulatory issues, even when making such arguments is at best a stretch. Yet in the face of a full-frontal attack by the president of the United States on the very essence of their credibility, these well-funded advocacy organizations have been basically silent.
As a former chief strategist of a major broadcast network, I can also attest that it takes very little to provoke a First Amendment argument from a major media company, even when it comes to minor tussles with government agencies. The president’s dismissive framing of the mainstream media industry, if unchecked, will continue to dismantle the trust that Americans should and need to have in the nation’s press; however, the very industry organizations built and funded to push back on the government are ducking and hiding.
There has been a lot of recent discussion of the difficult consequences faced by individual company brands when responding to the president. But that is why trade associations exist – so that no individual company needs to shoulder the burden. A trade association, as a representative of all players in the industry, can take on the necessary fight.
But where is that fight? Why aren’t the media industry trade associations standing together and running massive advertising campaigns to educate the public about the importance of a free press, investigative journalism, how to distinguish what’s real news from fake news, and how to teach your kids that believing what you want is very different from weighing and understanding the facts?
One explanation for this lack of leadership is that, like many industries, the business side of the media industry is focused on getting deregulatory benefits from this administration, and figuring it’s disadvantageous to rock the boat. Another explanation is that these trade associations are largely run by former Republican officials, including a former senator, a former FCC chairman, and a former House Committee staff director.
It is clear that most Republican congressional members have become enablers, unwilling to speak up against the president because of his sway over their constituents. The media industry’s own significant trade associations, by not activating their substantial public persuasion resources, are becoming enablers themselves, allowing their own industry to be deeply undermined.
Tom Rogers is executive chairman of WinView and also serves as chairman of Frankly Inc., which manages the digital and mobile news outlets for local broadcast stations and cable operators. Rogers was also senior counsel to the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, the founder of CNBC as the first president of NBC Cable, NBC’s chief strategist and CEO of TiVo.
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