Should a Free Press Ever Be Self-Limiting? Open Thread

The_New_York_Times_newsroom_1942 In post on Donald Trump’s not-so-veiled threats to spill the beans about Heidi Cruz, Callum Borchers of the Washington Post noted:

“That’s the dilemma for the press. In any previous election, if the Republican presidential front-runner had threatened a rival’s spouse, journalists wouldn’t have had to think twice about covering the incident. They would have known that highlighting such crass behavior would force the candidate to pay an appropriate price. They would have felt — quite rightly — that they were fulfilling an obligation to inform the electorate, which, being composed of sensible and decent people, would react with disgust.

But the electorate’s reactions are completely backward in this campaign. Trump insults Mexicans and his poll numbers (in the GOP primary, at least) go up. He calls for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States and his poll numbers go up. He says the military should torture terrorism suspects and murder their wives and children, and his poll numbers go up.

We know the pattern by now. Does that mean journalists’ obligation should change? Should we try to ignore Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric instead of reporting on it?

I don’t think so — not in most cases, anyway. As I’ve argued before, the duty of a free press is not to withhold information because journalists think voters will make wrong decisions with it. And Trump, by virtue of his position as the likely GOP nominee, is inherently newsworthy.”

Borchers’s conclusion seems likely right to me, but it seems worth considering more, and I’d like to hear other people’s thoughts. Is there ever a point at which a story should not be covered? What if a journalist believed a story might result in a riot? What if she believed it might redound to the credit of a demagogue? What if it might help keep/get someone as bad as an actual Hitler in power? What if it might humiliate or otherwise damage very good people without much compensatory good to be expected from it?

Of course a journalist should never lie. But can a journalist ever omit when he can reasonably predict the truth will cause far more harm than good? I’m guessing most of you will say “no.” So I want to know why not. And if you say yes, I want to know what the exceptions are.

Elizabeth Picciuto

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. Obvious cases seem to be journalists not publishing secret war plans if the country is conducting a just war.

    Journalists also should not publish without permission the identities of victims of sexual assault.

    Arguably, journalists should not publish again without permission, until convicted in a court of law, people who have merely been accused of sexual assault.

  2. Has the press started openly speculating on what the beans would be?

    I haven’t seen any official media types do this (but I don’t spend a lot of time with official media).

    One thing that the “real” media really, really wants to avoid is the whole “we’re not talking about this thing that everybody in their momma’s basement is talking about on their blogs” thing that burned them and burned them *HARD* in the 90’s with Lewinsky and then, again, with Edwards.

    Not covering something is something that cost them a fair amount of credibility in the past (warranted or not).

  3. I think there is a conflating of two separate issues here, especially when it comes to Trump.

    There is the very real issue of the press’s self-censorship, which can happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes those reasons are justified (withholding the names of rape victims, or not naming the dead before their families can be informed by authorities come to mind, as does malicious but unsubstantiated gossip) but most often they are not. I agree with Borchers that the press should not withhold information because they fear what voters might do with it at the ballot box.

    But there’s a second issue here as well, which I feel Borcher is obfuscating, either purposefully or cluelessly. The vast majority of Trump coverage over the past nine months hasn’t been covered to the extent that it has because it’s important so much as it has because it’s good for ratings/clicks. Sure, there are a few things Trump has said that deserve press (floating the idea of banning Muslims for example). But most days it’s just some tweet Trump put out that is semi-outrageous, and then that tweet pushes out coverage of important issues that can’t currently break through.

    This second issue, I believe, can be as damaging to a democratic society as the first issue over time.

  4. I absolutely think there are times when journalists should withhold or embargo stories.

    The David Geithner/male escort brouhaha at Gawker last year is a perfect example. (I have deliberately avoided learning much about their Hulk Hogan sex tape imbroglio for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that I have already taken to obsessing too much about media stories as it is.) It fits into the “humiliating good people” category you mention, though whether or not Geithner is good isn’t salient to me. He’s a private, if prominent, citizen, rendered newsworthy on the tenuous grounds of who his brother is. The public interest angle never seemed in any way convincing to me, and the story did nothing but (presumably) cause harm.

    There are lots of easy answers. If an outlet knew about the plans to kill Bin Laden before they were executed, I would argue it would have been wrong to publish them and thus allow an international terrorist to plan his escape. The names and locations of FBI agents embedded undercover with crime organizations would probably be considered newsworthy by some, but that hardly would justify a story were a paper or news site to get a hold of them.

    Many argued that the Rolling Stone/Sean Penn piece about El Chapo shouldn’t have run, in that it glamorized (from what I heard; I didn’t read it) a dangerous criminal without due journalistic scrutiny.

    The waters muddy in the “redound to demagogue’s benefit” area. This obviously, in our fun fun modern times, means Trump. To what degree should the media cover him, or have covered him? I certainly think he’s gotten more coverage of a kind than he deserves, like cable news outlets going live to his events when there’s little to be learned. (They can always run a story from tape if something develops.) Allowing him to call into talk shows rather than making him show up in person and be interviewed. That kind of thing.

    But I don’t think there’s a sound argument to be made that, say, when he makes barely-veiled threats to attack a rival’s spouse, the media shouldn’t cover it. He is, at this point, almost certainly going to be the GOP nominee, as devastating as that reality may be. I even argued in a post I wrote for the main OT page a while ago that stories about possible marital rape were newsworthy by virtue of his running for President alone.

    How the public will react to a story under such ambiguous circumstances is unknown, but the press cannot and should not be holding stories because of that kind of concern.

  5. To answer the OP’s question, I think my answer is “yes, as long as we’re talking about *self* limiting.”
    And to go on a tangent, I’ll say “press” means anyone who speaks, or at least anyone who writes. I don’t like the idea that we must determine first whether so and so counts as a “journalist” before enjoying certain privileges. I can’t point to enough specific examples where I’ve seen this to know whether it’s a bona fide trend.*

    *The Cook County State’s Attorney’s attack on Northwestern’s innocence project, which is based in part on the claim that they’re not really acting as journalists, seems to be one example, but I don’t know enough about that controversy to say so with confidence.

  6. I’d glumly note that the question is self defeating. All indications are that those elements of the press who elected to self limit their reporting would be replaced by those who do. Perhaps that’s an excessively pessimistic take but it seems like the problem is with the greater us.

    As to should, it seems to me the media should not publish obviously private information as some good examples have been given above. I’d certainly think that the media should recognize when it’s being used and at least attempt not to be played like a fiddle.

    All that being said I’d submit that Trump isn’t a good example because everything I’ve read and seen on the matter suggests that the right wing-o-sphere media, the Media, and especially and the GOP’s political actors each in turn received the cup of Trump and consciously chose to drink deep from it rather than cast it aside assuming that the next person in line would be the one to take up the thankless task of sticking a fork in the Trumpening. Now I still hold out a 60% opinion that the GOP will somehow contrive to halt Trump at the convention but either way Trump didn’t happen with these actors passive inaction but rather by their active participation each in turn.

  7. Generally no. As mentioned above, things like rape victims, deaths, etc. yes.
    Pretty much anything else? No. I’m ignoring celebrity news ’cause WTF cares.

    Too many examples of the press sitting on a story that would be relevant to an election, or a debate, or a vote in Congress to let any, “allegedly impartial journalist, to get away with sitting on a story.

  8. To answer the question as directly as possible, I don’t know that a journalist (which @gabriel-conroy rightly points out is a term that gets broader by the day) has any sort of duty to report any particular bit of information. I also don’t know that they have any duty not to report certain information. Ideally, they will report information in a manner consistent with the values/mission held by whomever they write for (even if just for themselves).

    Even agenda-based values can be legitimate so long as those are made explicit. As discussed over at OT, a site like Daily Kos can choose to only publish articles favorable to Democratic candidates because they are unabashed about their agenda in doing so. I think issues arise when a journalist (or outlet) purports to be one thing and then acts in a manner inconsistent with that.

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