SFChron editorial: Why the Chronicle didn’t join the editorial crowd on Trump

Repost from The San Francisco Chronicle

Why the San Francisco Chronicle isn’t joining the editorial crowd on Trump

By John Diaz Aug. 16, 2018
President Donald Trump takes questions from reporters outside the White House, in Washington on March 13. ,More than 200 newspapers have committed to publishing editorials on the same day, Aug. 16, on the dangers of the Trump administrations assault on the press. Photo: Tom Brenner / New York Times

When the Boston Globe called on the nation’s newspaper editorial boards to come together against President Trump’s “dirty war on the free press,” regular readers of The San Francisco Chronicle no doubt assumed we would be among the first in line.

After all, in our unsigned editorials and in my Sunday column, this newspaper’s criticism of Trump’s efforts to delegitimize, threaten and neuter independent journalism has been clear, emphatic and repeated since the early days of his presidential campaign.

But our editorial board will not be joining the estimated 300 newspapers which have signed on to the Globe’s pitch for a coordinated editorial campaign in Thursday’s editions.

It’s not that we take issue with the argument that Trump’s assault on the truth generally, and his efforts to diminish the free press specifically, pose a serious threat to American democracy. I wholeheartedly agree with Marjorie Pritchard, the Globe’s deputy editorial page editor, that such unprecedented attacks on press freedom by the president of the United States “are alarming.”

Here is our board’s thinking:

One of our most essential values is independence. The Globe’s argument is that having a united front on the issue — with voices from Boise to Boston taking a stand for the First Amendment, each in a newspaper’s own words — makes a powerful statement. However, I would counter that answering a call to join the crowd, no matter how worthy the cause, is not the same as an institution deciding on its own to raise a matter.

Our decision might have been different had we not weighed in so often on Trump’s myriad moves to undermine journalism: from calling us “enemies of the American people” to invoking the term “fake news” against real news to denying access to reporters who dare do their jobs to slapping tariffs on newsprint to requesting the prosecution of reporters who reveal classified information to threatening punitive actions against the business interest of owners of CNN and the Washington Post.

The list goes on.

It’s worth pausing to note the role of the editorial board. At The Chronicle, as with most American newspapers, the position on the unsigned pieces on the editorial page reflect the consensus of a board that includes the publisher and the editors and writers in the opinion department. That operation is kept separate from the news side, where editors and reporters make their judgments without regard to the newspaper’s editorial positions. This includes the endorsements we make in elections.

I am well aware that this “separation of church and state” — as we call it — is well understood and enforced within the building, but is not universally known or accepted by Americans, especially on the far left and right, who might be skeptical of mainstream media.

This brings me to my other concern of the Globe-led campaign: It plays into Trump’s narrative that the media are aligned against him. I can just anticipate his Thursday morning tweets accusing the “FAKE NEWS MEDIA” of “COLLUSION!” and “BIAS!” He surely will attempt to cite this day of editorials to discredit critical and factual news stories in the future, even though no one involved in those pieces had anything to do with this campaign.

Yes, those of us in the journalism profession do have a bias that the health of our democracy depends on vigorous reporting that can keep the people in power accountable. That is no less essential whether an elected official is Republican or Democrat, hostile or friendly to the press.

Our editorial page will continue to speak out against this president’s war on the free press. Our silence on Thursday is testament to our commitment to do it in our own way, on our own timetable.

John Diaz is The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial page editor.
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