Journalists discuss the relationship between presidents and the press

Nov 30, 2017

The journalism world these days is filled with allegations of fake news, confusion about what constitutes news, confusion about the First Amendment and those reporters who do responsible jobs. The news was the topic of a panel discussion before a packed house at the Buffalo History Museum Wednesday night.

The general topic was "Presidents and the Press," a panel discussion sponsored by the Buffalo Presidential Center. The panel agreed that reporters and the media are dealing with serious misunderstandings among the public about the importance of a free press, who decides what is published or put on the air or even who is allowed to speak, especially on campuses.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

Daemen College Political Science teacher Jay Wendland said his students fail to understand why speech they disagree with should not be forbidden, a common stance among students, according to an often attacked opinion poll.

"We shouldn't tolerate these more obscene speakers and, it's like, 'That's not what the First Amendment says,' Wendland said. "And they were very kind of skeptical. Okay, even if it wasn't done correctly, I think these results are still going to hold. It is deeply troubling that this is the view of the First Amendment that's out there."

Former St. Bonaventure University Journalism Dean Lee Coppola read the First Amendment to the crowd to explain that is why reporters can decide what to cover and what to report, not the government or some news release telling them what is news. He reminded the audience the American press is free because of the Constitution's First Amendment.

"It's the text that democracy is based on," Coppola said. "I don't care who the president is. The Constitution trumps the president, pardon the pun, but the Constitution and the First Amendment trumps every public official. It's basic to our democracy. It's important to our democracy and it will make press freedom survive. It will make freedom of speech survive."

Often, the discussion swerved into President Donald Trump and his tweets about the media, reporters and claims of fake news.

University at Buffalo Journalism Program Director Jody Kleinberg Biehl said there are also students who have trouble figuring out the facts from the mass of information out there. She said a major problem is that people do not distinguish among reporters, commentators, pundits and comedians - often giving equal weight to all.

"You have entertainment, which goes on in so many places, including late night Comedy Central. Many millennials think that Jon Stewart and John Oliver are journalists," Kleinberg Biehl said. "So we have to always say to them, 'No, no, no, they're entertainers and their loyalty is to laughter.'"

On the local level, Buffalo News political reporter and WBFO contributor Bob McCarthy spoke of stories reporters found because they looked and looked at past news releases and statements. He cited his story on Sunday about two people who died in South Buffalo Mercy Hospital under circumstances now in litigation as good journalism and a good story, drawing hundreds of online comments.