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Michael Oreskes – “It’s a war on the press and a war on the judiciary”

NPR editorial director discusses impact of new U.S. administration on media and reporting

Michael Oreskes speaking at the 15th symposium of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA)

Michael Oreskes speaking at the 15th symposium of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA)

Mirva Villa | 30.09.2017

Ten years ago, Michael Oreskes co-wrote a book called The Genius of America. In this book, Oreskes and his co-author Eric Lane explored the significance of the U.S. Constitution, its relevance to the crisis at the time, and the significance of the document throughout the country’s history. For Oreskes, the “simple” principles presented in the Constitution remain the driving force behind America’s success. The Constitution is a document on how to run a country without a monarch, one that requires a commitment from its people for the country to work. This includes a commitment to compromise, to open dialogue, and debate.

A decade later, Oreskes, senior vice president of news and editorial director at National Public Radio (NPR), found himself reaffirming some of these arguments at the 15th symposium of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association. Midway through the symposium – Life and Justice in America: Implications of the New Administration – Oreskes sat down with Salzburg Global to discuss his thoughts of the symposium, the challenges presented by President Donald Trump’s administration, and the need for new revenue models in journalism.

Read a transcript of the conversation below.

Salzburg Global: What have you thought of the symposium so far?

MO: It's fabulous. I love the formal panels, but it's also great just to be in the hallway, [or at] the coffees and the dinners, talking about all these issues… I love talking with people from all corners of the world because, you know, the world is not flat. People really see things differently from different places - even people who share a lot of common values. I'm learning a lot about the United States from talking to people from outside the United States. Maybe they're learning a little bit from me as well.

SG: What are the main challenges that the new U.S. administration poses for the U.S. media?

MO: The first challenge is that the administration has intentionally set out on a campaign to paint journalists as an opposition party. That's a phrase they've used. It's very important that we not let that happen. It requires patience and a lot of discipline not to let them bait us into arguments because that's exactly what they want.

They want us to be combatants in this war that they declared. It's a war on the press and a war on the judiciary. It's basically a war on any independent authority that might challenge their point of view. Our independence depends a lot on maintaining our credibility as independent. The minute we get into a fight with them, they win.

SG: Have you seen this happen before? Has any other president treated the media like this?

MO: There have been many other presidents who criticized the press. Harry Truman famously threatened to punch a reporter because he didn't like the review that this reporter had done of Harry Truman's daughter's musical performance. Richard Nixon didn't like the press. Even Ronald Reagan had criticisms of the press. But none of them have resorted to the kind of orchestrated effort to de-legitimize the whole of journalism, and that's disturbing and wrongheaded. It's just not an accurate view of the way the country was designed to work.

SG: You’ve said previously that you’re against the idea of the world living in the post-truth era. Why?

MO: It's clear that facts and truth matter very much. You go around the world right now and there are journalists in jail, there are journalists in hospitals and there are journalists in cemeteries. All of whom are in those places because they tried to distribute the facts and some government or corrupt organization didn't want those facts to be distributed. So if we lived in a post-truth era, who would care whether somebody was distributing those facts?

We live in a period where it has become acceptable to attack legitimate independent journalists and other independent groups that are trying to assess and report honestly with the truth of situations. It's become acceptable to attack them, either in language or in physical attacks.

SG: What are the main challenges for the future of journalism globally?

MO: I think the first challenge is to find some new models to raise the revenue to support journalism. Journalism costs money: it costs money to hire the journalists, it costs money to send them places.

There was a famous quote from a writer years ago that the freedom of the press belongs to those who own one. The good thing is now you don't actually have to own a press anymore. That part of the expense is gone, so it's a lot easier for a lot of people to distribute their journalism. But it's a challenge to have a way to support the people doing the journalism itself.

Now, we have one [model] in public radio in the United States that's kind of a mix of support from individuals who give us money, some support from the government, and some support from what we call corporate sponsors – and we mix that all together. It's working pretty well. It's very important to resolve those problems, because financial stability is the first precept.

SG: What inspires you to do the work you do?

MO: It goes back a long way. I just believe very profoundly that journalists do an important service for people. It's not so much that we make the world better, but we give people the material to make their own choices in the world. And that makes the world better. I'm very happy with that role and I'm proud to do it.

Michael Oreskes was a participant of the Salzburg Global program Life and Justice in America: Implications of the New Administration, which is part of Salzburg Global’s multi-year series Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA). More information on the session can be found here. You can follow all of the discussions on Twitter by following the hashtag #SSASA.


Mirva Villa