How free is the free press in Trump’s America?
Former Denver Post editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett, center, speaks to members of the media, May 8, outside the paper’s office and printing plant in north Denver. | Patrick Taylor/newsmatters

There is an old saying, “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” meaning that someone who provides the money has the right to determine what it is spent on. In journalism these days it has taken on a sinister connotation for everything from censoring school newspapers to the firing and even murder of outspoken journalists.

Here in the U.S. we like to reflect on the concept of a free press as written into the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But President Donald Trump describes journalists who offer anything but fawning coverage of him and his administration as “enemies of the people.”

Another president, Richard Nixon, also once declared, “The press is the enemy.” Carl Bernstein, one of the Washington Post reporters who exposed Nixon’s Watergate scandal in the 1970s, says Trump’s rhetoric is similar to Nixon’s in that he is “trying to divide the country, and make the conduct of the press the issue, instead of the conduct of the president.”

The Trump administration is trying to get the public to buy the idea that when a newspaper or television network reports anything that is at all unflattering to the president that newspaper or network is automatically displaying its bias.

“In Donald Trump’s America,” said the Los Angeles Times in an editorial, “the mere act of reporting news unflattering to the president is held up as evidence of bias. Journalists are slandered. Facts that contradict Trump’s version of reality are dismissed as ‘fake news.’ Reporters and their news organizations are ‘pathetic,’ ‘very dishonest,’ ‘failing,’ and even, in one memorable turn of phrase, ‘a pile of garbage.’”

While Trump aims his fire at even objective reporting that shines light on negative features of his administration, not all newspapers, television networks and other media outlets are placed on his enemies list. Some, like Fox News, shower praise on the president almost round the clock and he rewards them with frequent exclusive interviews.

It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that a big difference between the networks and outlooks he likes and the ones he opposes correlates to who owns those various networks and outlets.

It goes without saying that the high costs of putting out the news favors billionaires to become owners of huge chunks of print and broadcasting media and it is not always easy to keep track of who owns what. Recent headlines provide an example of how it can get confusing: “Comcast prepares all-cash bid to gate-crash Disney-Fox deal,” or “Disney Could Give Up Sky to Get Fox Assets.”

Another fact is that big money doesn’t just limit itself to controlling editorial policy. At times it goes after the ability of newspapers to even continue to exist. Clarity about the nature of what goes on in a world where big money influences journalism was the aim of a May 8 Democracy Now show with Amy Goodman and Juan González. They talked about how rank and file journalists are rising up against a Wall Street hedge fund that is chewing up and spitting out newsrooms across the country. Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund, owns Digital First media, the nation’s second largest newspaper chain.

Digital First Media has taken the ax and made deadly cuts to budgets and staffs at newspapers across the country, they explained on their show, including at the Oakland Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In recent months, Digital First Media cut almost a third of the newsroom at The Denver Post. Meanwhile, the private company reported profits of almost $160 million in 2017 and a 17 percent operating margin—far higher than other newspaper publishers.

So that’s what can happen when a large profit-motivated corporation controls the press. It’s a completely different story, however, in one city where a major metropolitan newspaper or an independent weekly are not owned by a greedy hedge fund or right-wing conglomerate, but rather by a consortium including labor unions.

Last July a very different type of investment group took control of the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Reader . The group includes a lawyer, a TV screenwriter, a recently retired local news anchor and several organized labor groups. Former Chicago Alderperson Edwin Eisendrath is the new CEO. The unions involved in the ownership group represent Chicago carpenters, operating engineers, laborers, service employees, and healthcare workers. The Chicago Federation of Labor is also an investor.

Current and former Denver Post staff and supporters rally against Alden global Capital outside the paper’s office and printing plant in north Denver. | Patrick Taylor/newsmatters

Comparing what appears on the pages of the Chicago papers with what appears on the pages of others shows how ownership changes the way news is covered.

Labor unions don’t deserve a stranglehold on new KCI terminal jobs,” is a headline that appeared in a recent issue of The Kansas City Star. It is a guest commentary by Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and the National Right to Work Committee. In 1996 Walt Disney Co. acquired ownership of The Star, in 1997 Disney sold The Star to Knight Ridder Inc. (then the second largest newspaper company in the U.S.), then in 2006 The Star and Knight Ridder were acquired by The McClatchy Co., the nation’s third-largest newspaper company.

In contrast, recent editorials in the Chicago Sun-Times were headlined: Pass these laws in Illinois to give immigrants some relief, A player in the CIA’s dark days shouldn’t get the agency’s top job, Young offenders with de facto life terms deserve a chance at parole, Chicago Police drones at rallies smack of Red Squad snooping, and A big factory gets to pollute, and you get to wheeze.

When vulture capitalist hedge funds own newspapers they reduce staff and resources and force highly respected journalists and editors to resign. They operate the same way they are operating in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico where drastic school closings were forced upon the island’s children by hedge fund creditors. However, as in Puerto Rico, those affected are fighting back. Journalists and press operators marched May 8 at the Denver Post’s Adams County printing plant. The NewGuild reported: “Reporters, photographers and other newsroom personnel from Denver, St. Paul, the Bay Area, suburban Philadelphia, and Kingston, NY, converged on the sidewalks outside its New York City headquarters, where they picketed, chanted and gave speeches on bullhorns. They demanded that Alden invest in the papers it owns or sell them to someone who will.”

What the good journalists of America seem to be saying then is that news in the interest of the majority is something we all need. Apparently in Donald Trump’s America it is something all of us, as individuals and in our organizations, will have to fight for. It’s the only way our free press will remain free.


Barbara Russum
Barbara Russum

Barbara Russum is a longtime reader and supporter of People's World, worked in production and program support 2003-2021. Former manager of the late, great Modern Bookstore, she values books, public libraries, and the struggle for universal literacy. She is a proud member of the Chicago News Guild/CWA.