Jason Walsh: War on the media crosses into Sonoma territory

Everyone’s talking about the First Amendment these days – that’s the one that essentially says people can trash talk the Government and the grand poohbahs in Washington can’t do anything about it.

It’s a particularly popular amendment among folks of my trade, because it boasts that little nugget that declares, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of the press.”

It’s a topic that will hit home, literally, next week in Sonoma, as the impressive new Sonoma Speaker Series on April 10 welcomes NPR media reporter Brooke Gladstone and Dan Schnur, former Director of Communications for John McCain’s 2010 campaign, to discuss “Trump’s War on the Press,” a topic seeded by the President’s vocal attacks on the media and his administration’s contention that the Fourth Estate is its primary “opposition.”

Much umbrage has been made of Trump’s “opposition” assertion (actually, it was advisor Stephen Bannon speaking on behalf of the Trump administration) – but it’s actually quite a defendable philosophy. For a person who routinely and knowingly makes false public statements, any industry whose most basic imperative is to expose such falsehoods – probably does come off like the opposition.

At next Monday’s event, which takes place at the Hanna Boys Center at 7 p.m., Schnur and Gladstone will discuss how the media should cover the Trump administration – in an attempt to answer the question those in the media have been asking themselves for much the past 18 months: When a president regularly refers to the press as “lying,” “dishonest,” disgusting” and “scum” – what should journalists do?

Sonoma resident John McChesney is a former and longtime NPR reporter, and one of the producers of the Speaker Series. He describes the President’s relationship with the press as “a moving target” and suspects the administration’s strategy is to divide the media into separate camps.

“One of my questions,” says McChesney,” is this: How does the fact-based mainstream media reach that Trump base who’s been told that everything they do is fake news?”

Adds McChesney: “I, quite frankly, don’t know the answer to it.”

As journalists debate how to cover the President, they face an equally compelling question: Why is a certain percentage of the population eating up Trump’s accusations about the media?

To most of us, it simply seems like a ruse to muddy the credentials of the people tasked with exposing malfeasance at the highest levels.

To others, it’s a sometimes fair description of some segments of the media.

As the media gazes inward, trying to find itself in a brave new world where its truth seeking is considered anathema to the Oval Office, it might be wise to get back to basics; for those in media to consider their roles not as journalists, but as writers: ones who are read, whose words are broadcast, absorbed, sponged, who inform and provoke – and, above all, try – try! – to illuminate.

Legendary New Yorker writer E.B. White once said that he felt “no obligation” to politics, only to his “responsibility to society because of going into print.”

Well, today it’s not only print, it’s online, it’s streaming live. It’s copy voiced by pontificators, comedians, blowhards and street preachers.

It’s the shout of a punk rock record; it’s the calm of an NPR reporter. It’s still journalism, it’s still writing. And it’s still the same responsibility.

“A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down,” wrote E.B. White in 1945, seven years before penning a kids’ book about a spider who wrote simply and honestly and in doing so saved the life of the lowliest among us.

“Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life,” said White.

That is what journalists should do.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.