When reporters can do their work, democracy flourishes. When they can’t, it flounders.
President Trump has prompted a new era of attacks on journalists, emboldening other politicians across the country and around the globe to follow suit.
These assaults on the credibility of the news media have already had an alarming impact: Two months before the 2016 presidential election, Gallup found that Americans’ trust in mass media fell to its lowest levels in the history of its polling.
But Trump is just the latest in a long line of threats to effective journalism.
Across the country, many communities lack a single newspaper that uniquely serves their area. The growth of these news deserts has been worsened by the influence of Facebook and Google in the advertising industry, and by billionaires who buy news outlets and then gut them.
As financial incentives change, journalists are asked to produce content that will attract clicks and advertisers, instead of stories that expose corruption, spotlight the marginalized, or alert the public to injustice and abuse.
These times call for renewed recognition and support for journalism dedicated to serving the common good. And for the past 68 years, that’s precisely the kind of journalism the Sidney Hillman Foundation, which I lead, has dedicated itself to honoring.
Named after Sidney Hillman, who founded and led the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the awards have come to be known as the “People’s Pulitzers.”
The winners of the 2018 Hillman Prize — who were honored this month — are uncovering the truth and creating change on some of the great issues of our times, from labor abuses to war crimes to white-collar drug trafficking.
Take, for example, the relentless reporting from USA TODAY journalist Brett Murphy, who documented an extensive network of abusive lease-to-own contracts from port trucking companies. Those deals turned tens of thousands of mostly immigrant truck drivers into modern-day indentured servants.
Workers have been trying to organize for years with the Teamsters to correct these abuses, and Murphy’s work helped spur immediate changes.
It prompted internal audits by major retailers — including Target, Home Depot, and Walmart — to ferret out abusive port trucking companies in their supply chains. And it spurred the introduction of federal, state, and local legislation to improve safety conditions for port truckers.
And consider a joint investigation by reporters from 60 Minutes and the Washington Post that exposed a war within the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Justice Department over whether to hold the powerful drug industry accountable for fueling the opioid epidemic.
The report forced the Trump administration’s would-be drug czar — Rep. Tom Marino, who helped pass a bill making it harder to crack down on companies that sold opioids to suspicious pharmacies — to withdraw his nomination. And it prompted investigations by Congress into the DEA’s failure to aggressively pursue the worst offenders in an epidemic that’s claimed 200,000 lives and counting.
From Nazi Germany to the modern-day Philippines, the first sign of a foundering democracy has always been the erosion of a free press.
This is why our nation’s founders enshrined the right to a free press in the very first amendment to the Constitution, and why today we must amplify the work of journalists who force transparency on powerful institutions from City Hall to Capitol Hill, despite increasingly strong headwinds.
Since 1950, the Hillman Prizes have recognized journalists whose reporting exemplifies Sidney Hillman’s belief that a free press was essential to a fair and equal society. These journalists are activists for the truth and accountability that underpins our democracy — and in this moment, we must be advocates for them.
Bruce Raynor is president of the Sidney Hillman Foundation and guest columnist for www.otherwords.org.