Bruce Sanford, partner at BakerHostetler in Washington, D.C., presented the 18th annual Sammons Lecture in Media Ethics last evening on the SMU campus. Bruce is one of the top First Amendment and media lawyers in the United States. The title of his lecture was “Trusting the Media in the Age of Trump.” A complete text of his lecture can be found here: 2017 Sammons Lecture in Media Ethics
Bruce has represented the top news organizations in the United States on a variety of matters including libel defense and freedom of information. I have known him for many years, and he is a passionate and articulate voice for government transparency as well as professional and responsible news reporting. It was a challenging lecture for journalism students, and honestly a bit more optimistic that I am regarding the future of news media. But he gave several excellent examples of innovative journalism that have created new avenues for accountability and integrity in news reporting.
We remain in a strange and difficult time in American politics, and the relationship between the government and the media has shifted significantly in the last 20 years. These changes have been chronicled in the mainstream press, academic work, and also in this blog. As Bruce noted in his lecture, confidence in the news media is at an all-time low. And often with good reason. “The sobering reality about the public’s relationship with the media is that, like an ugly divorce, there are contributions to the unhappiness from both sides,” he said. “As consumers of news, there are some things we bring to the dysfunction that only we can change.”
We didn’t reach this fragile place overnight, and no doubt both our political environment and the news media will require long-term repair. From the media standpoint, the digital age has wrought change no one could have imagined at the turn of the millennium. And the only certainty is that change will continue at a rapid pace. Thoughtful and reasoned consideration about a free press and its function in democracy will be needed from both our political class and our leaders in news media.