Freedom of the Press Imperiled by Repeated White House Restrictions and Denigrations

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last week, the White House prohibited video and audio coverage of daily press briefings, plus photographs of Press Secretary Sean Spicer. While press access has been a recurring issue across several administrations, the degree and frequency of these limits have accelerated significantly during the early months of the Trump presidency.

White House (south side)

On the campaign trail and since he was sworn in, Trump has consistently heaped harsh criticism on the press, and this vitriol is shared among many of his supporters. In a conversation with regional television reporters at the Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference in Phoenix over the weekend, one revealed that she was told to return to Mexico (she’s Asian-American) as she walked along the rope line at a Trump rally.

Another said that she’s regularly greeted as a member of the “fake news media” while covering local political events. And I need not remind you that a congressional candidate assaulted a reporter on the eve of his election without consequence.

Feeling physically threatened and verbally abused is now par for the course for “democracy’s detectives.

The move to limit video and audio coverage of press briefings gets to the heart of how Americans consume news. We’re increasingly less likely to read a print newspaper, but still avid consumers of television, and to a lesser extent, radio news.

One of the McCormick Foundation's commitments is the civic development of the next generation of individuals, communities and institutions in Chicago and Illinois, the First Amendment freedom of the press is critical to this enterprise and central to our benefactor’s legacy. Our vision for a healthy democracy in Illinois leverages institutions that are accessible, transparent, responsive, and representative. A vibrant, free press, in its enduring watchdog role, helps make this possible, but it is threatened by events in Washington and closer to home.

Thankfully, a number of our grantees are active on this front, perhaps most prominently the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press (RCFP). RCFP maintains a hotline for reporters and newsrooms under duress, providing direct support in acknowledgement of massive contractions in the industry. RCFP also files legal briefs in cases involving press freedoms, and engages in policy advocacy at the federal level in support of such reforms as a federal shield law.

We also support the Poynter Institute to provide regional and national trainings for reporters on a number of emerging issues. Poynter led a training last week at the IRE Conference on a new police arrest database, and have another planned this fall in Nashville on covering the Trump Administration.

Closer to home, the Better Government Association is an active user of the state’s Freedom of Information Act, perhaps most prominently in battle with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his use of private email for public business. According to President and CEO Andy Shaw, Illinois has a strong FOIA law, yet its compliance office has a 1-2 year backlog in responding to requests. Moreover, Shaw suggests that FOIA exceptions are often misapplied, and taxpayers wrongly foot the bill for FOIA lawsuits. Each of these problems demand policy solutions and the BGA is leading their development.

The battle between those in power and reporters tasked with holding them accountable is perennial, yet restricted access, physical and verbal threats to reporters, and general denigration of the press undermines this delicate balance and imperils democratic governance. Eternal vigilance is a must, and we’re lucky to have several national and local partners on the front lines. We implore you to join us in defending “democracy’s detectives.”

The #CivicsIsBack Summer Tour Off to a Strong Start in Its Second Year

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last week, 36 Illinois Civics Teacher Mentors gathered in Springfield for a second summer of intensive professional development in alignment with the new high school course requirement. Mentors are prepared to work with teachers, schools, and districts in their assigned educational region. Illinois has 38 outside of the City of Chicago, and we currently have mentors in 37 of them, with one remaining opening in Rock Island County.

Mentor Liaison Barb Laimins deserves strong accolades for supporting our initial cohort throughout the past school year, retaining the bulk of them, and filling vacancies with skilled, veteran educators.

This year’s training, and the two-day regional workshops throughout the state that follow, are responsive to data we collected from last year’s inaugural efforts. Specifically, teachers told us they needed additional support in implementing the emerging state social studies standards, the service-learning component of the civics course, and tools to foster students’ news literacy.

Lead Teacher Mentor Mary Ellen Daneels skillfully planned and presided over this year’s mentor training and is working in tandem with them to co-facilitate workshops in their respective regions over the course of the next two months.

Mary Ellen is a skilled “mixer” of her own curriculum with those produced by our civic education partners. She and the mentors have skillfully woven the latter into this year’s trainings.


In the service-learning space, this includes our partners at the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago and their Civic Action Project, the Center for Prevention Research and Development’s Engaging Youth in Positive Change program, and We, an internationally-focused organization that facilitates student service projects both locally and globally.

Turning to news literacy, our friends at the News Literacy Project have paired with the Center for News Literacy to support teachers in ensuring that students are not only wise consumers of news, but also responsible producers.

Mentors themselves are developing standards and course-aligned curriculum and units themed around engaging students in the public policy process. Look for them to appear on IllinoisCivics.org in time for the first day of classes this fall.

Mary Ellen, Barb, and the Mentors turned right around and began our regional trainings on Monday. They just concluded a successful two-day workshop in partnership with the Professional Development Alliance in Joliet, and kicked off another this morning with the DuPage Regional Office of Education in Lombard.

Next week’s stops included Carbondale and Kankakee, and after a one-week pause for the Fourth of July, the summer tour touches Macomb, Bloomington, Edwardsville, Charleston, Dixon, Loves Park, and Grayslake. Registration remains open for each of these trainings, and we encourage you to follow our progress on Twitter through the hash tag #CivicsIsBack.

Defining Issues for Public Policy Research and Deliberation

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Our Illinois Civics Teacher Mentors have gathered in Springfield this week for three days of training centered on news literacy, service-learning, and the emerging state social studies standards. This year’s summer workshops theme centers on engaging students in the public policy process, and my task was to first make the case for this, and then help define issues for further exploration and deliberation. Today’s post will center on the latter.

I’ve had great success in beginning this process within the hearts and minds of students. If there is a law they could change, what would it be? Further, what’s the status quo with respect to this issue, and how do policies differ in other jurisdictions? Finally, what does research show works best?

We can also pursue an outward-facing strategy, beginning with national polling data. According to Gallup, health care is the “top U.S. problem,” followed by dissatisfaction with government, immigration, economic performance, unemployment, and racism. Issues ebb and flow in response to public events. Health care concerns peaked during the initial debate over the Affordable Care Act, the public rollout that followed, and most recently the “repeal and replace” efforts of the Republican House.

The Pew Research Center offers deeper analysis of public opinion with respect to a plethora of issues. For example, when it comes to renewable energy sources, the public believes that government regulations are necessary to increase their use. On the other hand, a narrow plurality believes that it’s possible to cut back on environmental regulations and still achieve cleaner air and water in the U.S.

Closer to home, our friends at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute conduct annual opinion polls of registered voters in Illinois. The Springfield budget stalemate lingers as the summer wind blows in. A resolution from our elected representatives has been elusive, perhaps because their constituents are deeply divided themselves. A plurality believes that the budget should be balanced through spending cuts alone, although a growing share of the public calls for a mix of spending cuts and tax increases. Only a small share of the electorate believes that balance should be achieved solely through revenue increases.
Source: Paul Simon Public Policy Institute

Specific to young people, the Black Youth Project conducts regular public opinion surveys of 18-30 year-olds, with oversamples of nonwhite populations. Young people trend progressive, yet there is significant variation across race. For example, a majority of white youth support deporting immigrants currently living in the country illegally, but support peaks at 32% for African-Americans (25% for Asian-Americans and 18% for Latinos). There is broad support for raising the minimum wage across race, along with free tuition at public colleges, although it’s more tepid among white youth for the latter.

  1. Which level of government will solutions be explored: local, state, national, or global?
  2. What empirical evidence proves a problem’s existence?
  3. What specific government institutions are involved in addressing this issue (executive departments, independent agencies, legislative committees, etc.)?
  4. Which leaders are active on this issue both inside and outside of government?
  5. How does political ideology shape public views of the issue? In order to achieve policy success, solutions must be framed with bipartisan coalitions in mind.

Raise a Glass to Freedom and Rise Up to Hamilton's Civic Lessons

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Since its smashing Broadway debut, I’ve longed to see the Tony Award-winning musical Hamilton. But I balked at the price point for tickets on the secondary market, and being the armchair historian that I am, insisted on reading Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography first. Last week, I cleared both hurdles, and write today not wanting to “waste my shot” to translate these experiences for civics teachers and classrooms.

Having read many of the contemporary biographies of the American Founding Era, Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton ranks among the best. It’s much too lengthy for classroom use, but should be on every civics teacher’s summer reading list. Hamilton emerges as an unsung hero who never benefited from the privileges of the presidency or the opportunity to “tell his story” in retirement. Yet his contributions in the Revolutionary War, writing and ratifying the Constitution, and establishing the modern American economy cement his place alongside Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison.

Hamilton small

The musical itself is reintroducing a nation to its history, while grappling with the original sin of slavery. A racially diverse cast reflects our own students, as a majority of Illinois youth are now nonwhite, with the country as a whole close behind. And Hamilton’s immigrant heritage plays to both the American Dream of upward mobility and the barriers that remain in the forms of both explicit and implicit bias.

In this deeply divisive political era, the lessons of Hamilton resonate on two levels. First, the debates that he engaged in were every bit as vicious as todays and the press even more hyper-partisan. Under the cloak of anonymity Hamilton and his peers penned deeply personal op-ed pieces in newspapers that served primarily as party organs. True, they also touched on the issues of the day, but the insults make “Little Marco” and “Crooked Hillary” seem small.

However, these personal jousts often assumed physical dimensions in the form of duels. This, of course, is where Hamilton met his maker prematurely and thankfully duels were soon outlawed. But a sense of accountability for political discourse should carry forward, and verbal combatants must do their best to make amends for pushing the envelope too far.

Second, Hamilton left behind an infrastructure in the Constitution that establishes the formal boundaries of these debates. This includes his fierce advocacy for an independent judiciary in the Federalist Papers, and his work as a lawyer to establish that defamatory speech does not necessarily constitute libel. John Marshall was a Federalist in the Hamiltonian tradition and established the U.S. Supreme Court as a co-equal branch of government. And the “actual malice” standard for libel followed almost two centuries later.

Our government institutions are very much under attack in the contemporary era, but the divided and shared powers delineated by Madison and Hamilton will ultimately prevail assuming that we teach our students their importance and adaptability. And public discourse must be both rich and respectful. We honor our students by teaching them to deliberate across difference and simultaneously avoid the tragic fate of Hamilton and existential threats to the continuation of this ongoing experiment in democracy that he tirelessly birthed.