National Archives News

Former Members of Congress, Journalists Examine Evolving Free Press

By Jonathan Marker | National Archives News

WASHINGTON, October 25, 2019—In the era of social media, the competition to be the first to report on a new event challenges the information-authentication processes that make journalism not only responsible but also ethical. The continuing trend of systematic abandonment by the readership of critical information-processing hubs like newspapers, magazines, and journals for microblogs, social networks, and Twitter tweets underscores the impact of this challenge.

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Panelists Charlie Dent, Denise Lenoir Tolliver, Tom Glaisyer, and Elizabeth Esty.

On Wednesday, October 23, a panel of former lawmakers and journalists discussed these challenges in the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives as part of a program called "The Credibility of the Fourth Estate, Past and Present." Moderated by Politico reporter Daniel Lippman, the panel included former Members of Congress Elizabeth Esty and Charlie Dent; Denise Lenoir Tolliver, communications director for Representative Brenda Lawrence; and Tom Glaisyer, managing director, Public Square/Democracy Fund. The term “Fourth Estate” is used to indicate the important role an independent press plays within the American democratic system as a political watchdog, placing it alongside the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government.

“A desire for a free and active press was evident at the very beginning of our national government,” said Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero in his welcoming remarks. “From those earliest days, there has also been tension between those who govern and those who report on them. The Records of Rights exhibit upstairs in the Rubenstein Gallery documents several instances—congressional legislation and Supreme Court cases—that bear on the First Amendment to the Constitution, both restricting or defending freedom of speech and the press. We prize our First Amendment rights and regard them as part of what defines us as Americans.”

The Records of Rights exhibit is on permanent display in the David M. Rubenstein Gallery at the National Archives Museum. The exhibit explores the ongoing struggle of generations of Americans to fulfill the promise of the founding documents. Many of the featured documents in the Records of Rights exhibit can also be viewed online—including the Sedition Act of 1798, the first challenge to the First Amendment that criminalized criticism of the government. The act’s immense unpopularity with the public led to its expiration on March 3, 1801.

“Nothing—in my view—is more important to us as a democracy than to have a free and well-functioning media,” said Martin Frost, president of the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, before he introduced the panelists. Frost served 26 years as a Congressman from the 24th District of Texas from 1979 to 2005. He is also an adjunct professor at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management.

Lippman asked the panel a pointed question for each panelist to consider: “How did your interactions with media change during your time in office?”

Lippman began the discussion with Esty, who represented the Fifth Congressional District of Connecticut from 2012 to 2018.

“I would say the huge-impact surprise was in social media, which was enormously different in terms of the speed and the need for immediate response,“ Esty said. “It became extremely difficult to anticipate what was coming and, if the information was not true, it became extremely difficult to respond.

“Just after I was elected [to Congress in 2012], Newtown [Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.] happened; those murders happened in my district,” she said. “There was intense pressure from national and international news, but the negative social media impact—when you saw Alex Jones and the conspiracy theories—did not emerge until later. That immediate need for information became a much bigger element in all of the mass shootings that we see now. . . . I think that the issue of timing is a huge challenge for politicians right now.”

Esty said the Newtown murders cast a pall on her ability to leverage media coverage to advocate for resolving other, less sensational or controversial issues affecting her district.

“The incentives line up when you want to try and figure out how to get on television to raise money,” she said. “You do not do that by being moderate, you do not do that by being thoughtful, and you do not do that by giving a long discourse on the aging state of infrastructure—I know this because I was the one doing that. The white paper will not do; you have to come up with something pithy; that is what gets you on television. . . . I would get on television if there were a mass shooting because I represented Newtown. I had to ask, ‘would someone please put me on television to talk about something other than children dying?’ Because that was the only time I would get those calls. . . . Social media either feeds your media or crushes your soul, and neither one is good.”

Lippman asked Dent, who represented the 15th Congressional District of Pennsylvania from 2005 to 2019, to describe what it was like to sometimes publicly disagree with leaders and factions within his own party.

“For me, it was not that hard,” Dent said. “I had served 14 years in the state legislature—eight years in the State House, six in the State Senate—and 14 years in Congress. I was at the point in my career where I enjoyed the job, but the job does not define me. . . . I learned in the 2013 [Federal Government] shutdown that if you be authentic, state the obvious . . . if you are following your values and you have good judgment, you are probably going to be okay. If you try to pretend and act like someone who you are not, or you are too quiet when you should not be, people can sense fear. If you stand up for what you believe in, people might not like what you say, but they will at least respect you for it. ”

Lippman then asked Glaisyer to describe the leading incentives motivating what gets communicated through the press for members of Congress, and for the media in general.

“I think a lot has changed over the careers of these two esteemed Congresspeople,” Glaisyer said. “There are incentives to get into that conversation when we think about the Congresspeople and politicians in general, and when we think about the incentives of media [organizations] sustaining themselves in a commercial environment, it is a tough business.”

Glaisyer pointed out that the number of people working in the newspaper industry fell 65 percent, from 400,000 people in 2000 to 140,000 today.

“Just contrast that to the loss of jobs in coal mining—61 percent—journalists are losing jobs at a faster rate than coal miners,” Glaisyer said. “This is something that politicians face with immense scrutiny from the public and an absence of scrutiny at the local level [such as from newspapers]; appeal to audiences at a national level. Politicians cannot reach the local level with an absence of reporters. If you look at the collapse there, the incentives have changed in complex and nuanced ways.”

Lippman then asked Tolliver if she has seen the media in her home district and state decline since she took the job, and if she has fewer media inquiries because of the economic pressures.

“What I am finding in Michigan’s 14th District is, for example, we have a paper that’s laying off employees now,” Tolliver said. “Our main publication, Detroit News, is now asking their people to take buyouts. I now have to actively seek the press for my boss. Every now and then, she will say something controversial that I can use that I can put out on social media, and the news will pick it up. Ironically, though, it is usually by the national news. CNN and MSNBC will pick it up because, locally, the press are downsizing in Michigan.”


You can watch the program at the National Archives YouTube channel.


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