Media and the First Amendment in the Age of Trump

Watch O'Donnell's lecture

“Will political media learn to become prosecutors of lies and defenders of the truth?”

That was the key question posed by Suffolk Law School’s 2017 Masterman lecturer, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, speaking on the role of the media in today’s volatile and often disorienting political climate.

Each year the Masterman Speaker Series on the First Amendment and the Fourth Estate—established by Edward I. Masterman, JD ’50, LLD ’90 and his wife, Sydell—provides a forum for robust debate and exchange of ideas on freedom of the press and its attendant responsibilities.

O’Donnell, host of nightly program The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, asserted that the old paradigm of “fair and balanced” news left reporters unprepared for the 2016 election.

“For the mainstream media, ‘fair and balanced’ reporting meant presenting the Democratic views and the Republican views and letting the viewer decide,” said O'Donnell, who has worked in politics, entertainment, and news and has been highly critical of President Donald Trump.

Trump “got away with [lying] because the political media let him get away with it,” he said.

O’Donnell also expressed concern for the future of journalistic independence in an age when large corporations with intersecting business and regulatory interests own many media outlets. He revealed that President Trump has called the president of his network directly to request he be fired – a fact O’Donnell himself had just learned:

“You have to ask yourselves: ‘How many of those phone calls have been made in the last six years? How many have been successful?’”

O’Donnell was awarded an honorary doctorate at the 2001 Suffolk University commencement for what then-President David J. Sargent called his “great talent and inspiration, vision, passion and courageous voice in support of those without a voice.”

O’Donnell’s ties to the University began with his father, Lawrence, Sr., JD ’50, who was the president of his Suffolk Law class.

Media need lawyerly skills

Saying that there has been a long history of bipartisan political dishonesty, O’Donnell called on the political media to adopt lawyerly skills to safeguard the truth. That would include building a case based on solid evidence, providing proof, and demanding answers to “yes-or-no” questions.

“The mission of Suffolk Law School has never been more important than it is in the age of Trump. When the First Amendment is threatened, when the Constitution is threatened, lawyer and judges—not the news media— will always be the Constitution’s best, most important defenders.”