The Free Press - A National Security Issue?

By Stew Magnuson

iStock illustration

Despite decades in the journalism profession, it wasn’t until recently that I began to see what I do for a living as a potential national security issue: that a strong and vibrant free press in the United States strengthens the nation’s security, but a weak free press could be a vulnerability.

Yes, I wrote about national security, defense and related topics. But it was just that: the subject matter I wrote about.

A change in the way I see my profession began in September aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the U.K. aircraft carrier parked in New York Harbor to host the Atlantic Future Forum.

It was there that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt spoke during a panel about the importance of fighting foreign disinformation campaigns with the truth. Schmidt also served on the Defense Innovation Board and continues to advise the Defense Department. I will reprint his comments verbatim.

“I think one of the things we unfortunately need to recognize is a new vulnerability that exists. … I believe the best antidote to disinformation is access to better information.

“Traditional journalism has rightly been called the Fourth Estate since that phrase was coined in London centuries ago. But traditional journalism, you know, frankly, has not been treated kindly by the digital age, or frankly, by the business model innovations of the tech sector.

“And one of the things we’re able to analyze is: where is Russian propaganda being consumed the most on a per capita basis? It’s in the places where newspapers have died.

“In the United States, there’s hundreds of counties that no longer have a newspaper. Those are the places that are turning to alternative sources of news, I think out of necessity, and not with knowledge, or awareness, that what they’re reading is actually being sent to them from inside Russia.

“So, to me, part of the antidote is to recognize we need traditional news to prosper. We need to think more broadly about government and other initiatives that can help that happen.”

Yes, the irony of a former Google CEO pointing this out should be noted, but there you have it. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his minions are actively looking for communities where newspapers have disappeared and are filling the information vacuum with carefully crafted misinformation campaigns designed to erode our confidence in democratic institutions.

Chaos and disorder is the goal. It’s hard to imagine such a dour man as Putin “laughing with delight” but he at least cracked a smile on Jan. 6, 2021.

To be clear, this is not the trade press, of which National Defense is a member, but the community newspapers that cover city governments, courts, local schools and elections. The health of the defense trade press will be covered in a future column.

Thousands of experienced print journalists have lost their jobs and moved on to other professions. Newsrooms are being gutted.

The number of Americans employed in print newsrooms as of 2021 was 31,000, less than half of what it was in 2004 when there were some 71,000, according to the Pew Research Center’s annual report card on the health of U.S. newspapers.

Sixty daily newspapers and more than 1,700 weeklies have shuttered from 2004 to 2018, noted a study by the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. The COVID-19 pandemic saw another 360 newspapers close their doors, said a more recent report by Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

These losses have resulted in “news deserts,” particularly in poorer communities.

As for National Defense, there was a time when we advertised a job opening for a reporter and I would receive dozens of well qualified applicants.

Last fall, I advertised for an entry level reporting job and didn’t receive a single applicant for eight days. Young people — after two decades of seeing dramatic cuts to newsrooms — are not entering the profession in the numbers they once did.

Schmidt wasn’t the last commenter on the decline of the Fourth Estate this fall.

At the Halifax International Security Forum two months later, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said in a panel discussion that China and Russia continue to invest in their propaganda machines.

“We need to invest in journalism — in free media. We need to take some of the lid off of the incredible concentration of power in social media platforms. … We need to better resource our work in countering disinformation,” he said.

The U.S. government spending funds to prop up U.S. newspapers is never going to fly with most lawmakers or journalists who relish their independence, so Coons was asked at a press conference exactly what role Congress should take to help strengthen a free press and ward off foreign disinformation campaigns.

Coons said Congress does provide funding for State Department global media outreach but that is not a wholly satisfying approach.

“If content that is being provided to the world is only coming from U.S. government sources, then we’re mistaking our own core assumption, which is that independent corps of journalists is the best way to get the truth out to the people,” he said.

There is legislation introduced in Congress that would make social media companies that lean on traditional media share their revenue with content providers.

Meanwhile, malign overseas actors continue to plant misinformation in these “news deserts,” and stoke extremism — left and right — to keep Americans at each other’s throats. Divide and conquer is the strategy.

Topics: Security and Counterintelligence

Comments (2)

Re: The Free Press - A National Security Issue?

Perhaps subscriptions to "Ground News" should be paid for by the government in "news deserts" and tax deductible elsewhere.

Everett Puterbaugh at 3:45 PM
Re: The Free Press - A National Security Issue?

News Deserts--Free Press;
In my world as a journalist (IPCC.US) I'm trained to see the wold thru clear glass and not to see the world as most of the time a real world. True I'm must tell on what I hear and not what other wants me to hear.
There are a few in the US Congress have found their words have been block or even remove from viewing from private media sites. In today's world with instant everything the changing of a single word, comma, or phrase can really change the words of the original article to something else. When Ms. Greene in the House attacks the media for not letting her words flow it is more because many times her words give out misinformation.
Worst is finding that many people relied on news from Russia as small town newspapers go out of business and are full fill Russia has replace local costly media site with their free news sites, even have putting up front money for free cable sites. All under the control of Russia.
It is legal of sorts that a foreign entity under the gaze of an American company to operate a free cable TV channel.
As seen in the 2020 elections where huge sum of Rubles have flow in Republicans coffins putting less than qualified people into the House.
There were even sties that played both Parties against each other drew in millions who many times gave money to candidates that were not even listed on city, county and State ballots.
Just go back to the 2016 election of Donald Trump where the Russians did change the outcome on where the people would cast their ballots and who they would vote for.
Russia even took bragging rights on what they did.
Better how gullible Americans are.
Divide and conquer.

Just saying,,

Richard Cornell at 12:59 PM
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