The United Nations, 25 years ago, thought it was a good idea to put “World Press Freedom Day” on its international calendar, where today it shares designations with the likes of World Environment Day, International Literacy Day and World Suicide Prevention Day.
The late ’80s and early ’90s looked to be shaping up hopefully: top-down governments and their top-down economies were folding their tents, and the role of honestly brokered journalism in nations’ affairs was slowly in the ascendant.
Yet now, on World Press Freedom Day 2018, the world press is not only less free but even more endangered. And that extends into the United States, whose free press protections and practices have been an international model.
Journalists the world over are murdered by criminal forces, like the Mexican reporters assassinated by drug cartels, murdered by radicals of one stripe or another, like the “Charlie Hebdo” massacre in Paris. And reporters are killed, if not at the actual behest of their own governments, then by — shall we say — less than aggressive protections of their work and prosecutions of their killers. A number of Russian journalists have been killed or died suspiciously after reporting on corruption and human rights violations. Last month, a Siberian correspondent allegedly fell from his fifth-floor apartment balcony; his recent stories were about private Russian military contractors killed fighting in Syria.
And in Afghanistan this week, 10 journalists — 10— were killed in a single day.
The White House deplored the Afghanistan attacks as “a senseless and heinous act.” And yet the Trump administration has wrought its own kind of damage on the principles of a free press here and, by echo effect, around the world.
Any nation’s guarantee of a free press is only as formidable as its willingness to defend it.
When President Trump called the American news media “the enemy of the people,” he revived a phrase beloved of Stalin, Lenin and Hitler’s chief propaganda thug, Joseph Goebbels, who used it to describe Jews. Trump’s “fake news” insult has been taken up by other leaders as a stick to beat their own nations’ journalists.
The president of Poland threw the “fake news” slight at his country’s press. Rodrigo Duterte, as the newly elected Philippine president, was asked about protecting press freedom after a reporter was murdered in Manila. Instead, in a country that ranks as the sixth most dangerous in the world for journalists, he raged against reporters: “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.”
Here at home, “fake news” has become the routine fallback for people who just don’t like the stories written about them. David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, wrote in the New York Times that “the most prominent public-relations officer in Pittsburgh told us that a perfectly benign, and completely accurate, report on his institution’s activities was another example of fake news.”
Like Americans who tell pollsters they hate Congress, but who keep reelecting their own members of Congress, American presidents aren’t personally enchanted by their own treatment in the press, but almost to a man, they have recognized its indispensable role.
John Adams used the short-lived Sedition Act to imprison editors for “any false, scandalous and malicious writing” about him. A Vermont congressman who wrote an essay saying the Adams administration was awash in “ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice” spent election day behind bars; his constituents reelected him.
Any nation’s guarantee of a free press is only as formidable as its willingness to defend it. Trump, who ought to be sticking up for America’s free press principles as an example to the world, and defending them at home as part of the constitution he swore to “preserve, protect and defend,” has railed about a “son of a bitch” NBC news host. He has exhorted crowds to an ugly frenzy about the “disgusting” press. NBC’s Katy Tur, insulted by Trump as “dishonest … little Katy,” wrote in her fine book about covering the 2016 campaign that NBC had to provide security for her, and that the Secret Service once had to escort her safely out of a particularly nasty rally.
To his followers, Trump has very effectively undercut some constitutional and operational aspects of democracy, mocking federal judges, reviling career civil servants as the “deep state,” and savaging any press critique of his administration.
How effective? A Pew Research poll this spring found that not even half — 49% — of the Republicans it polled agreed that press criticism is important to a strong democracy, compared to 76% of Democrats. And a Gallup-Knight Foundation survey found that 42% of Republicans think even accurate news stories that happen to cast a politician or political group in a negative light should always be regarded as “fake news.” (For Democrats, that number was 17%.)
It’s not the same as journalists getting shot or defenestrated, but it’s surely no coincidence that Trump’s choleric attacks parallel the Radio Television Digital News Association’s tally of 44 physical attacks on journalists here last year. Two were by politicians. Montana Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte pleaded guilty to knocking down and punching a reporter asking him questions on election eve. (Gianforte won — and people sent his campaign more than $100,000, “atta boy” dollars from Americans evidently cheering an attack on a journalist.)
At this moment, newspapers, and smaller newspapers especially — the safety net of all news reporting in this country — are getting hacked up or killed off by brutal economics and sometimes even more brutal business practices.
And still, journalists persist. Real news reporting is the people’s intelligence service, and though it is far from perfect, it operates ideally as a self-correcting mechanism that wrestles with itself over every story, every day. At heart, most journalists patriotically think their work helps the nation live up to its ideals, and to do that, they’re willing to take on a job that they know means they’ll be sometimes unpopular and almost always underpaid.
But personal insults from the president of the United States, and physical attacks from people who don’t like the work they do, can’t ever be part of that tradeoff.
On this World Press Freedom Day, we should be alarmed by what’s happening to journalists overseas. But at home, we’re called on to defend democratic principles from the unprincipled. As Sen. John McCain warned last year, “to preserve democracy as we know it, we have to have a free and sometimes adversarial press.” Without it, “that’s how dictators get started.”
Patt Morrison is the author of the new book “Don’t Stop the Presses: Truth, Justice and the American Newspaper.”