The Alt celebrates its first birthday this month. Congratulations to David King, the fine staff, and the financial backers for supporting a local, independent and free newsweekly in the Capital District. In today’s world where “freedom of speech, or of the press” is under attack by Trump, and where many newspaper owners are investment groups, and where both liberal and conservative student organizations on our college campuses are forcing scheduled speakers to cancel their campus appearances, one can readily see that the divide between protecting and preserving the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment and those intent on destroying those rights is ever-growing.
In one of the most egregious threats made against the freedom of the press, Trump tweeted “that licenses must be challenged” when he was attacking NBC for its news coverage of him. A threat like this had not been seen since the 1970s when President Nixon went after the licenses of The Washington Post’s Florida TV stations in retaliation for the paper’s coverage of the Watergate scandal. In his Trumpian fashion of speaking like he’s the only one who knows anything but, in reality, showing his lack of knowledge on any particular topic, Trump had no clue that NBC does not have a government license. It is the individual local station that gets a license, not the main network.
Trump’s attack on NBC and the freedom of the press, in general, is seen by many as a dereliction of his sworn duty to “preserve, defend and protect the Constitution of the United States.” Some people believe that his tweets about “fake news,” “licenses,” and “partisan” news coverage could be grounds for impeachment. Furthermore, Trump’s tweets are in direct opposition to the stated commitment of the U.S. State Department regarding a free press. Trump’s handpicked Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, stated in May, on World Press Freedom Day, “…we reaffirm our commitment to promoting the fundamental principles of a free press…We honor those men and women who work tirelessly, often at great personal risk, to tell the stories…They are the guardians of democratic values and ideals.” But, of course, as we have seen over the past ten months, Trump has little, if any, concern about protecting democratic values and ideals.
Trump’s attack on freedom of speech, is not the only assault on the First Amendment. College campuses around the nation have seen invited speakers cancel their appearances due to the over-reaction of some students on these campuses. Students on both sides, whether conservatives or liberals have stood in protest of a particular speaker because they didn’t like that person’s political or social message. A recent study released by the Brookings Institute this past September, entitled, “Views among college students regarding the First Amendment: Results from a new survey” by John Villasenor, found that a large percentage of students believe that it is acceptable to act, even with violence, to shut down a talk that they consider offensive. Almost half of the students surveyed stated that they believe that the First Amendment does NOT protect “hate speech.” (It does.) And, more than 50 percent felt that shouting down a speaker they didn’t agree with was acceptable.
The findings of this study are disturbing on many fronts. It shows that our education system, at all levels, from elementary school to university, must do a better job of educating our youth on what the Constitution and its amendments mean, not just teach them by rote memorization. Villasenor suggests that including court rulings on the amendments when teaching American government would go a long way in expanding a person’s knowledge of the Constitution. It was also unsettling to read that many students feel violent acts are appropriate to shut down a contradictory speaker. Colleges and universities must continue to be places where different ideas and viewpoints are openly heard and discussed. We cannot let our academic institutions become so insular that thoughtful dialogue is lost and minds become closed to alternative perspectives no matter how offensive the speech may be.
Perhaps the biggest threat to our freedom of the press is the two-headed monster of the continuing loss of the number of newspapers in our country and the consolidation of ownership of the remaining newspapers in the hands of investment groups. According to “The Rise of a New Media Baron,” seven of the twenty-five largest newspapers are now owned by investment groups. These groups are defined as private equity funds, pension funds, and other investment partnerships. According to Julie Reynolds, in her article “How Many Palm Beach Mansions does a Wall Street Tycoon Need?” investment firms are not in the business to keep newspapers alive, but to “siphon off assets and profits, then dispose of what little remains.” She pointed out that “Under this strategy, America’s newsrooms shriveled from 46,700 full-time journalists in 2009 to 32,900 in 2015.”
With the loss of newspapers, especially on the local level, and the emphasis on profit over news reporting, the public’s knowledge of the world around them is shrinking. It is estimated that since 2004, almost 700 hometown newspapers have been lost. Thus, instead of having reporters and editorial staffs to keep an eye out for corruption and incompetence of local officials, we now have fewer reporters doing investigative stories and a decreasing number of newspapers to print those articles. Yet, at the same time papers are shrinking, ownership continues to increase the cost of the paper. So, citizens are left with nowhere to turn for in-depth news coverage. They must depend on 30-second sound bites on television and cable news stations for their ‘enlightenment.’ Newscasts that cater to a finite audience and disregard any viewpoint that is contrary to their political stance.
In the midst all of these issues surrounding the First Amendment and the “freedom of speech, or of the press,” The Alt came into being in 2016. While other newspapers are looking to divest and cut staff, while raising prices, The Alt continues to operate and to offer alternative viewpoints than those of corporate media without charging for the paper. The Alt has met its mission to “provoke, inform, inspire” the residents of the Capital District. Happy 1st Birthday! My birthday toast: I hope you celebrate many more birthdays and that you survive in this tumultuous era where the First Amendment is under attack. We need independent newspapers more now than ever before to keep the First Amendment alive and well in Trump world.