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Fighting the good fight for a free press

Episode 12: Will Potter  —  “Fighting the good fight for a free press”

Hi, this is Deborah Holdship editor of Michigan today.

In this episode of Listen In Michigan, my guest is Will Potter an award-winning author investigative reporter and internationally recognized civil liberties advocate. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Le Monde, a Sydney Morning Herald, and CNN to name just a few. Will is best known for his work challenging government repression and the labeling of protests as quote-unquote terrorism. I saw a moderated panel at Rackham with journalists who broke the Panama Papers and the Luxembourg Leaks stories the event really underscored the critical role that a free press plays in our society especially now that President Trump has labeled that free press as the quote opposition party unquote. I realize we spend much of our time talking about the impact of fake news from the consumer’s perspective. But what about the impact on reporters and editors out there the ones being insulted and attacked for doing their jobs. So I turned to Will he is the Howard our Marsh visiting professor of journalism at UofM right now and not surprisingly he teaches classes about investigative reporting social movements and whistleblowing. He came to UofM in 2015 as a fellow in the university’s Night Wallace program for journalists he also has more than one tattoo, restores vintage motorcycles and he plays with the punk band rise against. But that’s a story for another day. So, for now, let’s go to my conversation.

It makes good sense to start from the beginning. Define our terms. How do you define fake news?

Will Potter: Propaganda. I think the whole invention of this term of fake news lately is really a nicer way of saying a strategy that’s been around and used for a very long time by people in power of just outright propaganda spreading lies and manipulating the facts in order to push a political agenda. And now we’re seeing that in a very different way. Now obviously with the rise of social media and how it’s been used to influence the election and those types of things. But the root of it is really using and manipulating facts and lies to push a political agenda.

Holdship: So how is that different say from tabloid news or a disinformation campaign.

Potter: You know it’s kind of a fine line. So like with tabloid news I think most people will see stuff at the supermarket and know that it’s just for entertainment purposes. You know when you see the big alien autopsy discovery it’s not having that much of a bearing on the political process. The difficulty lies when information about that political process and about real-world events is blurred. So we can’t quite tell the source and how it’s manipulated. And that’s becoming increasingly difficult. There’s so many new news organizations and media websites and independent and citizen journalists that it’s difficult to verify the credibility and authenticity if some of those reports. And so it leads to people being duped or just willfully blind to what they’re reading as well.

Holdship: Most would agree that the free exchange of ideas and education is critical to democracy and that’s something that we’re really focused on here. So that leads me to this fall LSA is going to offer that course, it’s called “fake news lies and propaganda”. How to sort fact from fiction, what do you think about that?

Potter: I think it’s fantastic. I mean U of M has really been taking the lead addressing these issues. You know there’s a teach-out being planned right now reaching outside of the university community that involved in here on campus.

Holdship: Oh I didn’t know that.

Potter: Yeah, and she’ll be coming up in the next couple of months addressing these topics and then seeing something like this on campus is fantastic. I would even go further though, I mean I think we as a culture need to start talking about these issues at a very young age. I mean elementary school to foster, digital literacy, to media literacy to help students understand one the role of a free press in a democracy and then connected to that. How do we evaluate the news that we’re consuming but even in my classes here at the University of Michigan sometimes I’ve had issues with students bringing in pieces of what they think is investigative journalism from a site that’s not credible. It’s clickbait. Just trying to get Facebook likes and shares and sensational headlines. And that’s really dangerous. It’s one thing if it’s that alien autopsy video or something we know is a guilty pleasure or something fun. We’re clicking on our phones and you know when we’re waiting for a doctor’s appointment it’s another thing when this stuff is being passed off as news. So I really believe firmly that at a very young age we need to help students get these skills to understand what’s at stake.

Holdship: It’s really all about critical thinking.

Potter: It is, yeah.

Holdship: And how I guess that is a skill that needs to be taught it just doesn’t come naturally.

Potter: While it’s critical thinking in a very specific way though. So you have to look at a story and be able to evaluate the assumptions that are behind it. Newsrooms as journalists were familiar with how this process works, how you frame a story. What’s newsworthy what’s your you know, your lead and the angle of the story or sources. But I think consumers are becoming more and more passive in how they’re engaging with the news myths. So not evaluating at the outlet itself, who the journalist is, who’s quoted and not quoted from what the broader context of the story is, what’s left out of the piece. All of those things aren’t necessarily the most intuitive questions to be asking. But really shape how we perceive the news. You know we have so much going on and all of our lives of kids and family and work and it’s easier to just rely on whatever pops up on your Facebook feed or your Twitter feed or whatever and read it consume it and move it along with your day. But that can be really dangerous when there are people out there paying a lot of money to manipulate what you’re consuming. As we’ve seen in the last election.

Holdship: Yeah strangely enough out of Macedonia. I understand there’s hundreds of fake sites just writing weird things about our country for money.

Potter: Right more money than, you know, I make here as a freelance too (laugh), which is especially disturbing.

Holdship: That’s so scary, yeah.

Potter: Or you know there’s more money to be gained in this fake news. And that’s why I go back to that idea of fake news as propaganda because I think this term is being used to really take the teeth out of what fake news actually is. It makes it sound like it’s, you know, an accident and that’s not true. I mean this is a deliberate manipulation of audiences to push a political agenda for a very specific purpose. And that’s very different than if a news outlet makes a mistake. Or if there’s an error in a story. That’s not fake news, that’s a mistake and a reputable news outlet will be forthcoming with that, would publish it the same day or the next day’s paper with a list of corrections. This is a different animal, just because you don’t like something you can’t use that as a catchall term to silence your opposition you know you have to critically engage and think through the argument and what they’re presenting.

Holdship: Well I read this BBC piece this morning and it was interesting that we’re moving toward a place of not so much what to believe, but who to believe.

Potter: when we’re thinking through who to trust and who to believe that’s really extending to journalists as individuals or as brands for lack of a better term. Now I mean there’s a new report that I was just reading about how audiences are increasingly willing to follow journalists and so-called thought leaders and all these buzzwords. Wherever they go and they’re not necessarily tied to a specific media outlet. So that’s very different than how I came up as a journalist. We were told not to put ourselves front-and-center, not really exposing yourself as the individual. You have your byline but that’s it. You’re really relying on the credibility of your news outlet where you’re working. And what we’re seeing now is all those lines are being blurred because journalists as part of our craft we have to be on Twitter. We have to be on social media. We have to be public and doing these types of things. And so that credibility is extending to those outlets as well.

Holdship: You’re in a unique position. Here you are a professional journalist and now you’re in this academic setting. So what are you learning by virtue of being here and not in the newsroom all the time or out on a story all the time?

Potter: It’s a great balance. The nature of the work I report on and my specific beat of national security and civil liberties and human rights violations are pretty grim, to put it mildly. So to be able to engage with students on a daily basis and to see their excitement and their enthusiasm and be able to disprove this narrative of how millennials are apathetic and disinterested in the news and all this stuff is really exciting to me. On the other hand, though you know it’s kind of a mixed blessing to be teaching especially teaching investigative journalism in this era. On the one hand, the downfall is that my syllabus always has to get thrown out the window every single class period based on whatever happening in the news you know. The President called on the press, the enemy of the people.

Holdship: The opposition party.

Potter: Yeah it’s just terrifying. But on the more positive side, it’s an opportunity to engage with these issues in real-time with students and that’s been really rewarding for me and also for them.

Holdship: Do you feel like they get it? Did they understand how grave it is?

Potter: They do well sometimes it takes a little bit of guidance of connecting some of the dots of what the significance is of you know the President again saying the press is the enemy of the people are saying things like CNN in the New York Times or fake news. You have to have a historical context for that. And I think that’s one thing that students are sometimes missing is being able to understand those statements not just as a tweet but as a tweet in this specific moment in history and why that’s so dangerous. I’ve seen in my classes, I think students and all of us in the United States have a tendency to take the Press for granted that we’ve always had a First Amendment and we always will. We have press freedoms greater than many other countries. And we’re seeing that slipping away with the United States is falling in global press rankings, we’re seeing unprecedented attacks on journalists and whistleblowers. And I think that historical contexts is more important than ever to know what the dangers are right now.

Holdship: How personally do you take it when the president says journalists are the enemy of the state or the opposition party?

Potter: I’d take it very personally on a few different levels. I mean on the most broad level just as a citizen, it just makes me sick to my stomach. My work I’m very critical of a lot of government policies and that’s the nature of being an investigative journalist. But I think 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. The only way we can start seeing what people in power are doing is through a robust and free and uninhibited press. And if we start chipping away at that it’s gonna be a golden age for political corruption both at the local and at the federal level. More personally though as an investigative journalist and as someone who focuses on government abuse, FBI surveillance, mislabeling people as terrorists and things like that. It also makes me concerned for my own well-being when the New York Times and Washington Post and CNN are being attacked as fake news that has a chill. I mean it sends a very chilling message to journalists at lower level so to speak media outlets that don’t have the prestige and money freelancers like I’ve been for years. You go into journalism because you believe in the potential of the press and having a positive impact on democracy, we’re the only profession that singled out in the very first amendments to the Constitution and that’s for a reason because there is so much at stake. And so once we start whittling away at journalists at their sources, whether or not they can be trusted. I think it sets a really dangerous precedent for where we’re heading for the future of the Republic, the future of our democracy. People in power are threatened by a critical press. Every Presidency, every administration.

Holdship: Yes

Potter: This is not a partisan issue right, a good robust press is always the thorn in the side.

Holdship: Even George W Bush thinks so.

Potter: (laugh) Was that not shocking. But I knew this was a sign of the times, right now. You can see how not partisan this is. George W Bush was.. had his share of run-ins with the critical press. But I think the takeaway has to be the reason that those individuals want to neutralize, delegitimize the press is because once you do so it completely eliminates that check and balance on what they’re doing. So if we can just say, hey we don’t need a press we only The New York Times to report on what the President is doing. He has a Twitter account. That’s a godsend for President because you couldn’t just distort and manipulate and spin straight to the American people and have those pesky journalists in the way fact-checking and investigating and, you know, digging deeper to find out if it’s actually true. So if there is good journalism that you support, support it by subscribing and keeping that outlet afloat.

Holdship: Do you foresee a time when journalists will suffer more from burnout and depression as a result of all this craziness that’s going on?

Potter: Yeah I mean that’s something…

Holdship: What have you been hearing from your friends out there in the field?

Potter: People are struggling. The state of the craft in the US has been rough for a while. There have been hiring freezes, closure of bureaus, entire departments cut budget freezes, buyouts, I mean just on and on with no real end at sight. And then when you add on top of that attacks from the most powerful position in the world on the most free press and the world it sends a very chilling message. For some journalists, I think that translates into that burn out like you said or maybe a career change, which is really unfortunate. You know there’s an institutional memory that’s lost when that happens. People that have spent their lives devoted to journalism and if they’re being bought out or early retirement or have to go into public relations or just some other career entirely to pay the bills, we’re losing as a country from that, not just journalism but we as a democracy or losing from that. But I’ve also been more and more open about my own struggles with PTSD and depression related to like I said the nature of investigative journalism as dealing with very dark stuff day in and day out. And I think journalists have done a really poor job of supporting our own profession. You know we talk about PTSD when it comes to foreign correspondents and war zones. But not in day in, day out challenges of reporting on what’s happening here at home. My journalism class here at U of M, I talk about Murrey Marder at the Washington Post who was the only journalist assigned to cover McCarthy full-time. Other journalists had had that position and they couldn’t handle it and not the lack of expertise or determination on their part but it was just so grueling and debilitating. And he was very open about but the toll it took on him and his family. And we have to be willing to support people like that. I mean Marder’s work was instrumental and exposing the fraud of McCarthyism. And we need more journalists who are going to be in it for the long haul, who can continue to do that type of work.

Holdship: I saw a story, I think it was just yesterday, that the Colorado daily Sentinel as threatening to sue the Senator, Ray Scott, for defamation. So it’s the newspaper filing suit against the senator for characterizing an opinion column as fake news on Twitter. That’s such a reversal, you know, generally, the senator would be suing the newspaper for defamation. What’s going on there and what do you think that means for the future?

Potter: I well I don’t know if anyone knows what it means right now. But what I see is kind of a confluence of all of those trends that we’re discussing. Right, you have the rise of social media of politicians attacking the press as frequent fake news, in this case, attacking an opinion piece. That even more ironically was about the state senators refusal to move for discussion on an open records revision at the state level. So I mean it’s truly surreal. I would tell my fiction students that if they were to write this out in a short story or a novel. It’d be a little too heavy-handed right, that’s how I feel more and more as I’m watching the news. One, it’s not fake news, it’s an opinion.

Holdship: (laugh)

Potter: It’s an opinion based on fact but it’s still an opinion. So it kind of circles back to what we were saying before just using that term fake news to attack opinions that you don’t like. On the one hand, I’m excited to see journalist pushing back as we have to do very strongly against this language of fake news especially when it’s coming from elected officials has completely inappropriate. On the other hand there’s a reason that news outlets have historically been reluctant to turn the tables in that way because as a journalist I think we have a special reverence for the First Amendment and are really reluctant to try to silence people even when they’re saying things that are outright crazy or defamatory or dangerous or whatever it is scandalous. So I’m a little bit reluctant in that regard especially in a case like this. If the media outlet loses that could set a pretty dangerous precedent. So I think it’s a good example of how we’re all just trying to kind of fumbling in the dark right now trying to figure out how to balance this new digital environment with this new kind of toxic political environment attacking the press while also trying to defend ourselves and our craft when it’s needed more than ever. I mean I saw the Washington Post changed their tagline to now saying, “democracy dies in darkness.”

Holdship: It’s going to be interesting ten years down the line to 50 years down the line to see kind of how it plays out.

Potter: At the thought of what this could look like in a negative way 50 years down the line is terrifying. To me that just reflects, I feel like my blood pressure just went through the roof. You know how much is at stake right now I mean for all of us. I’m speaking selfishly obviously as a journalist but the reason I do this work because it matters to every single person in this country and the more I travel internationally for my work and meet with other Journalism colleagues around the world. I mean the amount of concern that they have right now watching from abroad. What’s happening in the United States has really driven that point home to me that we can’t just shrug this off and pretend it’ll blow over. I mean we are an example for better or worse and a lot of different ways particularly on freedom of the press for other journalists around the world as well.

Holdship: Alright well we can end with the possibility that on the bright side maybe this is the best thing that can happen with journalist right.

Potter: (laugh) Right. I mean I’m still militantly optimistic right now particularly because of the position I have at the university in dealing with students. They are seeing through the noise and the clutter in a way that I think I really underestimated and the more I’m doing public speaking events. So we had an event on campus just last week with the journalists who broke the Panama Papers and the Luxembourg leagues and the response was from that was just overwhelming. So my note of optimism or my positive note to end on would be I think people want investigative journalism and critical news more than ever. So it’s a prime opportunity to actually step up to the plate and deliver that. I think that’s the task we have right now as journalist.

Holdship: Clearly there is no time to waste. As Will pointed out, the free press is far too precious to take for granted. I’d like to thank him for joining me today and thank you for listening. If you like the podcast you can listen and subscribe by going to SoundCloud, iTunes or TuneIn and search for “Listen In, Michigan”. The podcasts are also available under the podcast tab at michigantoday.umich.edu. Have a great day. We’ll be back next month. Until then, go blue!

“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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