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Fighting the good fight for a free press

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”

Actor Strother Martin, ’47, secured his niche in pop culture lore with this famous line from the prison film Cool Hand Luke. 

But those same words could have come from the mouth of award-winning investigative journalist Will Potter during one of the most surreal phases of his reporting career. In recent months, Potter, along with all of his colleagues in the news media, has been cast by President Donald Trump as “an enemy of the people,” a member of “the opposition party.”

“On the broadest level, just as a citizen, it makes me sick to my stomach,” says Potter, the Howard R. Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism at U-M.

People have the power

Listen in, as Potter gives a reporter’s perspective on this conflict. He shares news from the classroom, where he tears up his syllabus just about every day, based on the news. It’s a mixed blessing to be teaching investigative journalism in this era, he says. “But it’s a great opportunity to engage with students on this topic in real time.”

Self-fulfilling prophecy?

Throughout his career as a reporter, author, and civil liberties advocate, Potter has focused on how governments silence free speech and dissent. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, National Geographic, and Rolling Stone, among many others, and he relishes an adversarial relationship to people in power. But this battle with the Trump administration is something new – and dangerous — as he notes in this latest episode of “Listen in, Michigan.”

One of the most sinister possible outcomes of this conflict, he says, is the self-fulfilling prophecy in which the administration baits the media into becoming its own worst enemy.

“It’s difficult to disengage from the news cycle and not follow every terrible bit of news that keeps coming out, especially as it relates to the press,” says Potter. “But at the same time, I think that’s what we need now, more than ever: a bit of restraint, patience. We need to step back and see the big picture, rather than being baited into responding quickly to every outrageous thing that happens.”

That’s nearly impossible, though, thanks to our 24-hour television news cycle, a digital media landscape that demands up-to-the-second updates, and the nature of social media’s obsession with clickbait.

Glass half full

But Potter struggles to remain optimistic: “I think we are entering an era where media outlets understand that consumers want more, and they’re capable of handling more,” he says. “Investigative reporting is not dead. And we’re seeing media outlets being willing to spend money on it. I am hoping this is a positive trend that — combined with these attacks on the press — is a good way to rile up reporters and get an adversarial press really moving again.”

The bottom line is this, Potter says. “Across party lines, I hope, as a country, we could say that no matter what you object to that’s happening right now in the United States, the free press is not part of the problem. It has to be part of the solution.”

Potter is a 2015-16 alumnus of the Knight-Wallace Fellows Program at U-M. He also is a TED fellow. His book, Green Is The New Red, exposed how non-violent animal rights and environmental protesters became classified by the FBI as “eco-terrorists.”

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