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“A feature, not a bug:” Hostility against journalists is a function of the time

John Nerone is professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Illinois and author of Violence Against the Press: Policing the Public Sphere in US History

The past three days of protests in cities across the United States have contributed to a concentrated spike in attacks on journalists.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a project led by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, is investigating more than 100 instances of reporters being arrested, pepper sprayed, tear gassed, hit with rubber bullets, and assaulted. 

But journalists have covered social upheaval and unrest throughout the history of the U.S., and hostility toward them is hardly new. 

John Nerone, author of Violence Against the Press: Policing the Public Sphere in US History, has identified more 100 attacks by anti-abolition mobs against publications that opposed slavery. 

Nerone finds similarities between the targeting of journalists today and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He sees a thread connecting them both.

“Hostility is never pleasant, but journalists should recognize it as a feature, not a bug, of their current situation,” he said in an email. 

We reached out to Nerone, professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Illinois, to help us place the assaults against journalists and the arrests in a larger, historical context.

Based on your study of history, what is a likely outcome of this period of anti-press sentiment?

Nerone: There’s a disconnect between how journalists think of press freedom and how ordinary citizens think of it. Journalists think of it as the property of news organizations, who exercise freedom of the press on behalf of the people by providing objective reporting and a neutral forum for competing positions. Ordinary people in the US have never really embraced that position, judging by actions, rhetoric, and polling. They believe in freedom of the press, but think the news media use it for their own purposes — some say commercial gain, some say covert political objectives — and want non-journalists to be able to exercise freedom of the press, too.

What’s interesting about today’s situation is that there is another layer of mediation between news organizations and people, namely the platforms, and that this is both a layer of control — algorithmic control at least — and a layer of interaction. This gives people who dislike the news media both a new set of actors to hate in Facebook and Google and a new capacity to build their own news ecosphere. It was always the case that people disliked the news media but liked their own newspaper; that dynamic is now exponentially increased. 

This is a long-winded way of saying that I suspect hostility to persist and increase, but for it to be targeted to specific news sites rather than “the media” generally. What news organization is more hated than Fox News, for example? … Yet Fox news also encourages hostility to other news media players. This is to be expected in a structural situation where the news media have become partisan. The ultimate outcome might be a zero-sum attitude toward freedom of the press, where more freedom for you is less freedom for me.

What precedent is there for blaming the press for social unrest? What effect does it have?

Nerone: The obvious historical parallel is the Civil Rights era. Southern resisters believed that “troublemakers” had gamed the national media, and that unrest in the south was a result of this collaboration between activists and journalists. They were right, too: Much of the action of the movement would not have taken place at all and would not have had much effect if journalists hadn’t been there to report it to the nation and the world. But they were also wrong, because this conspiratorial attitude made the deep roots of the Civil Rights movement disappear in a cloud of “outside agitation.” In the past week’s events, the incidents of performing for the media have far outnumbered those of attacking the media, and, just as in the 1950s and 1960s, there is a feeling that the disturbances are the result of outside agitation.

Tangentially, one should note that the disturbances this week would not have occurred without media of a different sort — videos taken by bystanders, uploaded to social media and going viral. 

How does the current climate against the press — the sustained encounters with protesters and with law enforcement and the criticism from the president — compare to other moments in history when the press was a regular target?

Nerone: The closest parallel to the past week would be the years between Brown v. Board of Education [1954] and the Democratic National Convention of 1968. In those years, the press was far more likely to be a direct target of violence. The opponents of civil rights activists — call them segregationists or resisters or white supremacists — frequently targeted both “race” journalists and journalists for national media covering events in the South. And the Chicago police also directly targeted journalists for national media covering the protests in 1968. Likewise, journalists covering unrest in northern cities found themselves frequently targeted.

On one side, violence against the media was motivated by a sense that journalism as an institution was marked by a liberal bias, something that the conservative movement had been emphasizing for decades before [President Richard] Nixon and [Vice President Spiro] Agnew made it a governing principle. On the other, activists on the left considered the mainstream media to be a part of the establishment.

Obviously, there’s a lot of continuity from that time to now. But there has also been a significant structural change. In 1960, there really was a journalism “establishment,” which consisted of a few newspapers with national impact, a few news magazines, two wire services, and three broadcast networks. That establishment has lost its gatekeeping capacity in the past few decades. What has occurred in this generation is the emergence of what Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel have called a “journalism of assertion,” which has strong similarities to nineteenth-century partisan journalism. 

Just a week ago many of us were writing about how essential the press was as a source of information during the pandemic. What chance does that sentiment have of outlasting the current protest climate?

Nerone: Good question. The pandemic was a moment of opportunity for most of the nation’s institutions to prove their worth. Journalism seemed to be making a lot of headway against ingrained distrust, as did medicine, business, and state and local government. State and local governments have begun to give background to toxic polarization. It’s still too early to know if medicine will hold its gains. Business, especially small businesses, seem to have held onto their improved status, though this is tentative. 

Journalism is at risk from three angles: the partisan attack, which will continue to pay dividends with some voters; the fractured news ecosystem, which makes it difficult to convey any message with authority; and the failing business model. Of these three, I think the current unrest plays through the first one primarily. But I think this is also the least imposing of the three. I’m more worried about the business model than the president’s angry tweets.

How should journalists react to the hostility they encounter on the streets?

Nerone: Hostility is never pleasant, but journalists should recognize it as a feature, not a bug, of their current situation. It has structural drivers, in other words. U.S. journalists in particular should recognize that they’re much more secure than their colleagues in Mexico. Everyone should recognize the importance of physical safety for journalists: There should be no ideological divide on that. There are organizations devoted to this cause, like the Committee to Protect Journalists or Columbia University’s Dart Center (for Journalism and Trauma), that have guidance on how to avoid violence and how to deal with trauma from the job. I personally dislike the old-timer’s advice to “grow a thick skin,” though that can be useful. Journalists should always retain an openness to others’ points of view, and this includes attempting to understand the anger directed at them.

What role does political leadership have in swaying public opinion about the press?  

Nerone: Political leaders should do their best to do no harm. They should model appropriate behavior and attitudes. Democratic governance is supposed to be about the search for truth; journalists should embrace that principle in practice as well as in rhetoric, and political leaders should do their part in creating an arena of public opinion in which the free and sincere exchange of ideas can occur. Journalists need to welcome criticism that is candid and substantive, but there is no reason for demon-ization. I don’t think the president’s tweets make much of a difference in the larger scheme of things — journalism’s decline in public esteem is deeply rooted — but they certainly don’t help.