For the nation’s journalists, this has been a summer of unease and unrest.
On live television, a caller to C-Span threatened “to shoot” a pair of CNN journalists, Don Lemon and Brian Stelter, for their political commentary. In Tampa, Fla., rallygoers hurled vitriol at reporters covering a speech by President Trump, who later tweeted his approval. Mr. Trump added a new adjective to his nickname for the media — “the fake, fake, disgusting news” — and his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, declined to disavow the phrase “enemy of the people.”
All of this came on top of the usual, apolitical afflictions facing news organizations, like Tronc’s move to lay off half the staff of The Daily News, decimating one of New York’s biggest papers.
On Thursday, newsrooms responded. In a coordinated effort started by The Boston Globe, more than 300 publications issued editorials reaffirming the purpose and promise of journalism in American society. “Journalists Are Not The Enemy,” declared The Globe. “A Free Press Needs You,” wrote The New York Times. Mixed in with pro-press quotes from founding fathers were reminders of journalists’ role in provinces small and large: tying communities together, keeping citizens informed, holding governments to account.
Collectively, the output read as a cri de coeur: part catharsis, part civics lesson, part plea to a public whose attitude toward the news media has soured under Mr. Trump. A poll this week by Quinnipiac University asked a black-and-white question: “Which comes closer to your point of view: the news media is the enemy of the people, or the news media is an important part of democracy?” Lack of nuance aside, the results were notable: 26 percent of respondents went for “enemy of the people,” including 51 percent of Republicans.
Whether the spate of editorials on Thursday can make a difference is not yet clear. Before publication, some prominent journalists fretted about the unintended message the effort could send to the unconvinced.
“I certainly am sympathetic with The Globe’s view that the press should not be labeled the enemy of the people,” said Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Washington Post, which declined to participate on Thursday. “In general, however, I am reluctant to join in campaigns or movements. The diversity of the U.S. press is one of its strengths, and I believe The Post serves its readers best when speaking in its own voice and on its own timetable.”
The Capitol Gazette in Annapolis, Md., where five employees were killed earlier this summer in a shooting, also declined to join in. “We’re just not coordinating with other news organizations because the president’s opinion, frankly, is just not that important to us,” its editorial board wrote. “We are far more concerned about what this community thinks of us.”
Other holdouts included The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal, the latter of which ran a counterpoint that began: “For anyone who believes that the editorial pages of American newspapers have been insufficiently critical of President Donald Trump, The Boston Globe has a solution.” The sneering extended onto Fox News, where Sean Spicer, the former Trump press secretary, cited the editorials as more evidence of bias. “The press continues to make it about them,” Mr. Spicer said.
Reporters at the White House, with a handful of exceptions, have responded to Mr. Trump’s attacks with stoicism, even as some on the left have said they should punch back. In high-stakes moments, like Mr. Trump’s July summit meeting in Helsinki with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, journalists at Reuters and The Associated Press asked simple but direct questions that yielded real insight into the president’s thinking. And although news organizations have fielded death threats and hired security guards for correspondents, some reporters are reluctant to publicize these added difficulties.
The Times opinion page published an editorial in solidarity with other publications. The paper’s publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, told Mr. Trump at a recent Oval Office meeting that his derogatory words have created real dangers for reporters domestic and abroad. Groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists have noted an uptick in foreign leaders, often autocrats and despots, using the phrase “fake news” to silence unflattering coverage and attack independent reporters.
The Times editorial made clear that reporting in an open society can lead to discomfort and distress among elected officials, in exchange for a better informed populace. It noted that Thomas Jefferson, utterer of a now-ubiquitous quote about preferring “newspapers without a government” over “a government without newspapers,” changed his tune once he experienced the scrutiny that comes with leading the nation.
“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” Jefferson wrote in 1807. “Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”
The current president, like his 19th century predecessor, also flip-flops on the press. Mr. Trump enjoyed cultivating his image in the news media, eagerly showing off to visitors a Collyer-like collection of clips about himself; at the height of the 2016 campaign, a Trump Tower boardroom was dedicated to storing hundreds of magazines and newspapers.
On Thursday, responding to the day’s editorials, the president once again lashed out. “The Globe is in COLLUSION with other papers on free press,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter, throwing in a “Failing New York Times” reference for good measure.
“The fact is that the Press is FREE to write and say anything it wants,” he added. “But much of what it says is FAKE NEWS, pushing a political agenda or just plain trying to hurt people. HONESTY WINS!”
Later, Mr. Trump hosted a meeting of his cabinet at the White House, which a small group of reporters were allowed to observe.
“If you’d like, you could stay,” Mr. Trump told the journalists. “Or if you’d like, you can also leave. Don’t forget: freedom of the press.”