By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Why a widely praised move to call out Trump’s toxic rhetoric may have been a mistake

The state Capitol in Jackson, Miss. Photo (cc) 2007 by Jim Bowen.

I want to push back ever so gently against the widespread praise the Mississippi Free Press has received for telling the truth about Donald Trump. As you may have heard, the ex-president was at his outrageous worst at a rally in South Carolina last Saturday, inviting Russia to attack members of NATO that in his view don’t contribute enough money to cover U.S. defense costs. “I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want,” Trump said of his friends in the Kremlin.

Much of the media fell down on the job, giving exponentially more coverage to the special counsel’s gratuitous claim that President Biden is dealing with age-related memory problems than to Trump’s dangerously unhinged rhetoric. So the Free Press, a nonprofit news organization that covers public policy in Mississippi, decided to publish a corrective. Under the byline of news editor Ashton Pittman, the website ran a headline that read: “Trump Encourages Russia to Attack American Allies: ‘Do Whatever the Hell They Want.’” Pittman’s lead:

Former President Donald Trump would encourage Russia to attack U.S. allies whom he claims do not contribute enough to NATO defense costs, he told a crowd of supporters to cheers at a South Carolina rally on Saturday.

Now, this was all true, and the Free Press handled the story with far greater urgency than, say, The New York Times, which buried Trump’s remarks while publishing multiple stories about Biden’s alleged forgetfulness. But why was a regional news organization leading with a national story from another state?

In an editor’s note, Pittman said he was encouraged to do so by his editor, Donna Ladd, explaining: “Several major national media outlets were fumbling the ball and either ignoring those remarks or giving them less weight than they deserve. Donna said we should set an example for how national media ought to cover such extreme policy declarations, and I agreed. So we did.”

My objection to this is that there are good reasons why local and regional news organizations ought to stick with their mission. Multiple studies show that people trust local media more than they do national outlets. At the local level, we should be working to rebuild civic life and help people find ways to come together over local issues even as we are being torn apart by partisan polarization over national politics. Yes, the problem is mainly with the political right, which has become increasingly extreme during the Trump era. But the Mississippi Free Press and outlets like it should stand as an alternative not just to the toxic rhetoric of cable news (and especially Fox), but also to serious purveyors of journalism like the Times and The Washington Post.

Apparently the Free Press is in the midst of a reshuffle. According to Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab, the Free Press recently became an Associated Press subscriber and is starting a national news section. At the moment, the Free Press’ homepage is featuring two AP stories about the fallout from Trump’s remarks. I wonder if that might be a mistake, too. While it makes sense to run AP content with a Mississippi focus, I question the value of running national and international stories on a site whose principal mission is statewide news.

Another, similar site, Mississippi Today, has stuck to its knitting — and won a Pulitzer Prize last year for its coverage of a welfare scandal that implicated, among others, former NFL quarterback Brett Favre. (CEO Mary Margaret White was a guest on our “What Works” podcast in November 2022.)

I don’t want to be too critical of the Mississippi Free Press. We need more projects like it, digging in and holding power accountable in statehouses across the country. What it published about Trump was true and righteous, and stands in welcome contrast to the both-sides timidity of the national press. I’m concerned, though, that the siren call of national politics is a distraction from its main mission, and may alienate some readers who might otherwise be reachable.

No doubt some on the political right already castigate the Free Press as a tool of the liberal elite, because that’s what right-wingers do. And no, the Free Press shouldn’t pander to them. But this strikes me as an unforced error.

Update: Donna Ladd has taken issue with this post, and I write about that here. I’ve also tweaked the wording, which I explain in my new post.

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  1. Jeff Good

    Disagree. News organizations, whether local or national, “stick to their knitting” when they identify and report important stories. I doubt delivering a national scoop will distract the Free Press from doing important work in its backyard, but it will remind the big guys that if they don’t pay attention, someone will. And thank goodness for that.

  2. Mary M.

    I understand that local media needs to stay focused on its circulation area — my first employer got complaints from subscribers when we started carrying AP stories on state issues, never mind national coverage — but their readers will absolutely feel the impact of this race and his comments are news now, not after some hypothetical local campaign stop in the future. In fairness, the MS GOP has already gone all in on Trump and Pittman’s article links to one describing Mississippi lobbyists’ Russian connections, so there is a local angle to the story. Perhaps that should have been emphasized more.

  3. Ricardo Ismach

    Your criticism seem’s of a time past, when journalism wasn’t collapsing under the pressures of consolidated corporate ownership and imploding revenue streams, nor buckling under the weight of foreign government, moneyed-class, and extremist disinformation campaigns. With a dramatic fading of independent, or even truth-seeking national news outlets, and the stakes being the survival of democracy in America, don’t journalists in outfits like the Mississippi Free Press have an ethical duty to report the truth?

    If they mind their own business, and none of the corporate-run national press is reporting a major story, then what?

  4. I appreciate the comments above as the editor of the Mississippi Free Press, whose decisions are disparaged in the above blog post.

    Here is my editor’s note responding to Kennedy’s blog post, including specific characterizations and the fact that he didn’t bother to reach out to me or News Editor Ashton Pittman before writing it. We are easy to find.

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