SAG-AFTRA Touts Press Freedom, Testing Political Waters in Trump Era

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The issued statement comes a few weeks after the union criticized the travel ban.

In a departure from its general practice of not wading into political matters, SAG-AFTRA on Monday issued a statement on press freedom, reaffirming the importance of speaking truth to and about those in power.

The rationale for the statement was obvious but unstated, as the paragraphs of concern omitted any mention of President Donald Trump, whose campaign and nascent presidency have been marked by attacks on the press as “the enemy of the American people” and by repeated false statements about everything from crowd size to the previous night’s (non-existent) horror in Sweden.

“As a union whose membership includes broadcast and online journalists, SAG-AFTRA champions the rights of a free press, whose primary role is to provide citizens with the information they need to effectively govern a democracy,” said the statement. “[C]itizens in a democracy need the truth. ... [J]ournalists have an obligation to monitor and question those in power, pointing out wrongdoing when they find it, noting when facts asserted are not supported by evidence, and reporting inconsistencies in the positions of public figures.”

In a briefing Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump has “a healthy respect for the press.”

The SAG-AFTRA statement marks the union’s second set of political remarks since Trump’s inauguration, after having criticized his administration’s Muslim-targeted travel ban last month. Unlike the WGA West, SAG-AFTRA said nothing when the then president-elect attacked a United Steelworkers union leader in December. And in contrast to the AFL-CIO and some unions, none of the Hollywood unions had any comment on the president’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

Of course, SAG and SAG-AFTRA have gotten involved in political issues that directly affect members, such as advocating in 1986 for DMV privacy in the wake of an actor’s murder that was facilitated by leaked motor vehicle records or, more recently, securing passage of a law (now under challenge) requiring removal of actors’ age and birthday information from IMDb upon request. But broader national issues have mostly triggered hesitation, not action.

That reticence, especially on SAG-AFTRA’s part, has historical roots that can be traced to a single day almost exactly 35 years ago. As recounted in David Prindle’s sweeping 1988 history of SAG, The Politics of Glamour, on Feb. 15, 1982, then SAG president Ed Asner and several other actors held a press conference in Washington at which they presented a check for $25,000 — to be used for medical aid — to a representative of leftist El Salvadoran guerillas who were engaged in a civil war with that country’s military government.

Blowback was immediate, and although the action had nothing to do with SAG, the union was caught up in the resulting anti-Communist furor. Indeed, it scuttled for a decade a planned merger with the Screen Extras Guild. Once burned, twice shy, and the union has generally avoided political matters ever since — at least until now.

Still, even the most recent statement telegraphs a cautious approach. “It’s about the most bland statement possible on the issue,” said Prindle in an interview. “It’s too anodyne to cause offense.”

Read the entire SAG-AFTRA Statement on the Rights of a Free and Unencumbered Press below. 

As a union whose membership includes broadcast and online journalists, SAG-AFTRA champions the rights of a free press, whose primary role is to provide citizens with the information they need to effectively govern a democracy. These rights are guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which establishes that the press shall be free from government interference in the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions.

SAG-AFTRA, journalists and non-journalists alike, supports a free and unencumbered press and stands with any journalist who might find his or her ability to report on our government challenged or compromised.

SAG-AFTRA believes first and foremost that citizens in a democracy need the truth. Furthermore, SAG-AFTRA believes that journalists have an obligation to monitor and question those in power, pointing out wrongdoing when they find it, noting when facts asserted are not supported by evidence, and reporting inconsistencies in the positions of public figures.

As working professionals, members of the news media have an obligation to verify the accuracy of what they report, with loyalty only to their readers, listeners and viewers and not to any political party, affiliation, or ideology.

As a proud labor union representing more than 160,000 broadcasters, actors and entertainers SAG-AFTRA stands with all of its members in ensuring that the basic rights of a free and independent press continue to be upheld.

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