In Trump Era, Censorship May Start in the Newsroom


By Jim Rutenberg

Rick Casey, the host of a weekly public affairs program on a small television station in Texas, recently fashioned a stinging commentary on remarks by Representative Lamar Smith that was pulled shortly before it was to air. The station later reversed itself. Credit Josh Huskin for The New York Times

This is how the muzzling starts: not with a boot on your neck, but with the fear of one that runs so deep that you muzzle yourself.

Maybe it’s the story you decide against doing because it’s liable to provoke a press-bullying president to put the power of his office behind his attempt to destroy your reputation by falsely calling your journalism “fake.”

Maybe it’s the line you hold back from your script or your article because it could trigger a federal leak investigation into you and your sources (so, yeah, jail).

Or, maybe it’s the commentary you spike because you’re a publicly supported news channel and you worry it will cost your station its federal financing.

In that last case, your fear would be existential — a matter of your very survival — and your motivation to self-censor could prove overwhelming.

We no longer have to imagine it. We got a real-life example last week in San Antonio, where a PBS station sat atop the slippery slope toward censorship and then promptly started down it.

It’s a single television station in a single state in a very big country. And the right thing ultimately happened. But only after a very wrong thing happened.

The editorial misfire bears retelling because it showed the most likely way that the new administration’s attempts to shut down the free press could succeed, just as it shows how those attempts can be stopped.

The story began with a Jan. 24 speech that Representative Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas, gave on the House floor regarding what he described as the unfair way the national media was covering President Trump. He said for instance that the media ignored highs in consumer confidence, which of course it did not. And he ended with an admonition for his constituents: “Better to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”

His remarks caught the notice, and the ire, of a longtime San Antonio-area journalist and commentator, Rick Casey, who hosts a weekly public affairs program “Texas Week” on KLRN. He ends each week’s show with his own commentary, which also runs in The San Antonio Express-News.

Mr. Casey has been able to work for “40 years as a professional smart ass,” he told me, because “I’m not really a bomb thrower — I’ve watched politicians for so many years that I know how to be strong about something without being unfriendly.”

But Mr. Smith’s comments bothered him enough that he wrote up a stemwinder of a closing commentary. “Smith’s proposal is quite innovative for America,” it went. “We’ve never really tried getting all our news from our top elected official. It has been tried elsewhere, however. North Korea comes to mind.”

All set to go, the commentary was mentioned in a Facebook promotion for the show, which in turn caught the eye of Mr. Smith’s office, which called the station to inquire about the segment.

Forty minutes before the show aired, the station’s president and chief executive, Arthur Rojas Emerson, left a message for Mr. Casey saying he was pulling the commentary and replacing it with an older one. Mr. Casey told me he missed the call, but saw what happened with his own eyes. At a meeting the next Monday, Mr. Casey said, Mr. Emerson expressed concern “that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was under attack and that this would add to it.” The Corporation for Public Broadcasting provides financing for public stations, including KLRN, and Mr. Trump’s election has heightened fears that its financing will be cut.

It also happens that Mr. Emerson had left journalism for several years to run his own advertising firm and that Mr. Smith had at one point been a client.

Mr. Casey says he asked Mr. Emerson if he’d be willing to come on the program and discuss it all, but Mr. Emerson declined. And that seemed to be that.

But as we’re learning this year, journalism has a safety net in the people who appreciate it, and the people who work in it.

First, when Mr. Casey’s commentary ran as planned in The San Antonio Express-News, astute readers noticed it was different than the previous night’s televised commentary. The story of what happened began traveling around San Antonio journalism circles, making its way to the Express-News columnist Gilbert Garcia, who shared the details last Friday.

Another titan of Texas journalism, Evan Smith, who co-founded The Texas Tribune and regularly appears on Mr. Casey’s program, noticed Mr. Garcia’s column while he was in Washington. “I had a hot coffee in my hand and I came very close to dropping it,” Mr. Smith told me. “Holding people accountable in public life is so fundamentally important that this idea that somehow we’re going to stop doing that because we’re worried about what the government’s going to do to us, I so unbelievably reject that.”

As it happened, Evan Smith was in Washington for a meeting of the PBS national board, on which he sits, and “I certainly got into the board room and talked to people in the system.” He also called Mr. Emerson, and told him “I didn’t see why The Tribune or I should continue to be associated with this show or this station.”

By late last week, Mr. Emerson had agreed to let Mr. Casey’s original segment run this Friday, as long as it included a new “commentary” label that will run with his opinion segments.

When I caught up with Mr. Emerson this week he acknowledged making “a mistake” that should not tarnish a career spent mostly in broadcast news, starting in a $1.25-an-hour job as a cameraman. “I had to make a decision in what was about 20 minutes,” he said.

He acknowledged that “clearly we always worry about funding for public television,” but said that wasn’t the “principal reason” for his decision to hold back the commentary. “We have to protect the neutrality of the station — somebody could have looked at it as slander,” he said. The “commentary” label, he said, would take care of it.

Mr. Casey is satisfied with the result. But he acknowledged that it was a close call and that he was uniquely qualified to push back in a way others might not be. “I’m lucky to be in the position of being 70 years old, and not in the position of being 45,” he said, meaning that job security was not the same issue. “There’s no level of heroism here.”

In a week in which Congress is calling for a leak investigation into stories in The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN that led to Michael T. Flynn’s forced resignation as national security adviser, heroism is what’s called for. Hopefully there’s enough of it to go around.

Your Editor Distinguishes: We applaud participation, not subordination

Newspapers Are Asking Trump for Change


The president-elect may not always get along with reporters, but a shared desire for fewer regulations could be common ground for his administration and the newspaper industry over the next few years.

By Ricardo Bilton

Dec. 7, 2016, 1:26 p.m.

President-elect Trump and journalists may be at odds with each other on most fronts these days, but there’s one area where the new administration and the newspaper industry appear to agree: They both think there are regulations that need elimination.September 6, 2016

Late last month, the News Media Alliance (née the Newspaper Association of America) sent the incoming Trump administration a white paper detailing its policy positions on a variety of laws and regulations that it says are hurting the newspaper industry — a first for the organization. The NMA has been newspapers’ official trade association and mouthpiece since 1887, and it’s been lobbying on behalf of the industry from the start. Back then, the organization was focused on changing postal rates and newspaper tariffs; these days, it’s trying to get government to react to the rise of Google and Facebook.

“All the issues are different now, because the media landscape has changed so dramatically,” Paul Boyle, the NMA’s senior vice president of public policy, told me. “And most of it is a reflection of the reality that newspapers don’t have the dominant position today that they had in the market eight to ten years ago.”

Of the eight policies the organization wants Trump’s transition team to pay attention to, some of the most significant are FCC rules about media cross-ownership, which generally prevent companies from owning both broadcast stations and daily newspapers in the same market. The Nixon-era rule, passed in 1975, was designed to ensure that big companies didn’t have monopoly power over information distribution in a given market. The NMA’s position (like the NAA’s before it) is that while the rule made sense when people only had a handful of news options in their local markets, it’s out of date in the age of the web and the smartphone, where digital distribution gives people nearly infinite options for where to get their information — and where newspapers find themselves competing, without much success, with big tech companies for advertising revenue.

Direct comparisons are difficult, of course, but these tech companies rarely face the same kind of regulatory oversight that has built around the newspaper industry over the past few decades, which the industry maintains puts newspaper companies at a greater disadvantage.

“When you look at even the Department of Justice’s definition of a media market, you see that they only look at newspapers competing with other newspapers in a market. They do not look at newspaper competition with broadcast, magazines, cable, and the Internet. So, yeah, things have changed,” Boyle said. “Unfortunately, in government, once you have a rule that’s in place, it’s hard to get rid of that rule. There needs to be a level playing field and a recognition that markets do change and you need to adjust regulations in that way.”

The NMA is also asking for what it would consider a strengthening of copyright protection and a more limited application of fair use. In its letter to Trump, it argues that “news aggregation platforms such as Google News” take too much of the revenue that it believes should be flowing to content creators:

Newspaper content makes up approximately two-thirds of the content on news aggregation platforms such as Google News, but many of these relatively new players in the digital ecosystem build audiences and generate revenue from newspaper content with little if any revenue coming back to those who have invested in creating the original content. Today, the news media industry invests roughly $5 billion each year in long-form investigative journalism. Our nation’s copyright laws must be structured and implemented in a way that allows for a return on this massive investment. Today, outdated interpretations of copyright laws mean that the industry is currently forced to give away much of its product for free. The government needs to put in place copyright protections that allow news organizations and other content creators to fairly benefit from their critical efforts and investments.

It also argues that fair use should be constrained in order “to prevent courts from undermining the Constitution’s encouragement of compensation to entities that generate creativity and productivity.” Needless to say, these changes would face strong opposition from both tech companies and those who argue that the broad ability to quote news articles across platforms has enabled robust democratic discussion.

Trump’s relationship with the media has been, shall we say, less than warm, but with its pushback against regulations, the NMA hopes to find a kindred spirit in the Oval Office. Trump has railed against regulations and called for both the repeal of old rules (particularly those that he believes slow job creation and hiring) and a temporary ban on the creation of new regulations. “We are cutting the regulation at a tremendous clip. I would say 70 percent of regulations can go,” Trump said at a town hall event in October (though an advisor scaled that number down to 10 percent). “It’s just stopping businesses from growing.”

The NMA is also seeking some tweaks to the tax code. Boyle pointed to Section 199 of the Internal Revenue Code, which gives tax deductions to companies that manufacture products in the U.S. The rule is a big advantage for newspaper companies that still print physical papers, but it doesn’t apply to the investments these companies are making to build up their digital operations, where the tax deductions don’t apply. The industry wants the tax laws to be more agnostic to the platform in which content is delivered. “We’re in the business of manufacturing a digital product — the tax code needs to reflect that,” Boyle said.

Beyond big regulatory changes, the newspaper industry is also looking for the administration to agree to its stances on media transparency and free speech. Even before taking office, Trump attracted the ire of reporters by ditching his press pool on multiple occasions. While there are no official rules against the practice, reporters say giving the press pool uninterrupted access is key to reporters being able to do their jobs and keep the American public informed.

Likewise, the NMA wants the new administration to take seriously the importance of the Freedom of Information Act and give reporters regular access to the president and government officials. The George W. Bush administration, for example, was considered by some to be relatively hostile to FOIA, and even told federal agencies that it would defend them if they were sued over not complying with information requests. The Obama administration’s initial promises of increased transparency have fallen short in the eyes of journalists concerned about leak investigations and other actions, though Obama did sign the FOIA Improvement Act, which codified a “presumption of openness” for government records, earlier this year. It’s unclear whether Trump, who has repeatedly railed against the press, will take any of these concerns to heart.

But even these transparency concerns are, at their heart, really business concerns. “The heart of our business model is the journalism that we do. Anything that is going to chill news gathering is a concern to us,” said Boyle.

Your Editor Concurs Again: Fair for all, Fair will be

Fox News Folds Latino Site


By Maxwell Tani

Fox News is shuttering Fox News Latino, its six-year-old independent site dedicated to covering news for the Latino community in English.

In a series of Tweets last Thursday, Fox News national correspondent Bryan Llenas lauded the site for attempting to reach different audience through the Fox News brand.

“When we launched in October of 2010, we were faced with a daunting task: Report on Latino stories in the US and Latin America in English in an honest attempt to give voice to the voiceless and bring often ignored stories from the Latino community to the mainstream,” Llenas said. “We not only were tasked with reaching a new audience — in a way — we also had to work extra hard to break preconceived notions about what the Fox News brand meant in diverse Latino communities around the country in an attempt to report the truth.”

Llenas continued: “In short, when asked: was Fox News a failure? The answer is unequivocally NO. For six years, we amplified Latino opinions, voices, and issues on one of the major media platforms in the country.”

Fox announced in a post earlier this month that it would be folding back Fox News Latino reporting into its main site. Attempts on Thursday to reach the site redirected to a Latino category tag housed on the primary Fox News page.

In his post on Tuesday, Llenas added that “virtually all” Fox News Latino employees would remain at the network.

Operating virtually independent from Fox, the original mission statement stated that the site would create “culturally relevant content built around the interests of Hispanic online users.”

Some observers noted that the site at times hemmed closer to the news side, and appeared to contrast greatly with the network’s opinion programming.

Left-leaning site Think Progress noted that the angles “differ remarkably” from other stories on the Fox News site.

It’s unclear whether Fox News Latino’s demise is part of a larger shift at the network following the departure of former CEO Roger Ailes earlier this year. Fox News Latino founder Francisco Cortes was part of Ailes’ first graduating class of network apprentices, and told Politico that the site was the former CEO’s idea.

Your Editor Reflects: It may just be a coincidence. But we expect Bryan Llenas to give us the facts behind the decision.

We Are StoryTellers


During his keynote discussion at the MIP Cancun Latin America TV Market & Summit last week, Manuel Abud, Azteca America´s CEO of Azteca America, commented on what storytellers can learn from President-elect Donald Trump’s victory:

  “For us Americans, there’s been one aspect of our lives that hasn’t quite changed, and that’s politics. That’s not the case with President-elect Trump. Look at the campaign he ran. He was a disruptive element. He was a game-changer. That’s a big takeaway. The second one is, we’re all in the business of storytelling, right? Look at the storytelling component of the election. Look at what this man did. He understood his audience, he knew exactly who he was talking to. He understood exactly what the message needed to be. He crafted that message. He branded himself around that message and he emotionally connected with that audience. You can see the results. For us as storytellers, this is a major lesson on what we do for a living. Understand your audience, craft the proper message to connect emotionally. And then, once you define that route, don’t be afraid to break from the path. Look at that campaign. He offended everybody and their cousin, he lost every single debate, he was behind in the polls, but he won. There’s a major message and a major transformation in terms of political campaigning. And for us as storytellers, there are major takeaways.”

 Your Editor Agrees: Pálante Siempre

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