An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. —Joseph Pulitzer
For the past several years, we’ve bemoaned the doom and gloom of a press that has seen its influence wane, its integrity challenged, and its profitability eroding. Critics rightly claim that what passes as journalism today is hardly a shadow of what it was a mere twenty years ago. Amidst the glut of twenty-four-hour cable and online streaming news, even the once powerful homes of Murrow, Cronkite, and Brinkley are now forced to battle for ratings. It is sad to see the Fourth Estate in such sad condition.
There is, however, an even worse situation on the horizon, one that’s been quietly building in smaller countries and now beginning to rear its ugly head at the top of powerful governments. While we as Americans have always honored the concept of a free press, we are seeing an increasing threat of violence against those who dare to report the truth.
I felt a chill yesterday morning when I read that Philippine president-elect Rodrigo Duterte said Tuesday that, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.” This comes after yet another reporter was shot dead in the streets of Manila last week. 174 journalists have been killed in the country over the past three decades. Duterte is one of those people who dislikes the press challenging him, which they have done often. His response is violent and unconscionable. Yet, he’s not alone.
Reporters Without Borders released their 2016 World Press Freedom Index a month ago and some of the numbers contained therein are extremely disconcerting:
- Venezuela has had 16 journalists attacked, one editor imprisoned, and 22 media bosses are forbidden to leave the country.
- In Russia, 70 journalists have been attacked, 81 arrested, and even social media users are being harassed.
- Turkey prosecuted over 1000 people for “insulting the president,” arrested over 100 journalists, and have critical editors imprisoned.
- Egypt has 23 journalists in prison where they are tortured and beaten on a regular basis.
- Iran completely closed six media outlets and has 32 journalists in inhumane prisons.
- China has over 100 journalists imprisoned, their families harassed, and many tortured.
We used to think, “that couldn’t happen here,” but it is. The foundations are being laid with the rhetoric of a major presidential candidate that is decidedly anti-press. The latest came Tuesday when he called ABC’s Tom Llamas, “a sleaze.” A few seconds later he sarcastically called CNN’s Jim Acosta, “a real beauty.” While the insults may seem harmless, they are indicative of a would-be leader who dislikes being criticized and considers himself above scrutiny. He has also booted Univision anchor Jorge Ramos from a press conference with a warning that he “holds grudges.” He’s called Fox News analyst Charles Krauthammer “totally overrated,” blasts reporters who challenge him on any issue, and perhaps most famously called Fox’s Megyn Kelly a “bimbo.”
While the temptation is to dismiss this nonsense as just that: nonsense, the fact is that such continual bashing of the press builds up a resentment toward all media that would attempt to investigate and report on the truth in any form other than what has been government-approved. This is no slippery slope. This is outright repression of the press and, should this horrible person actually be elected, we can only assume that press freedoms would further erode.
Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather, who himself took some pretty heavy criticism from the Nixon administration, took to Facebook last night and expressed what I think a lot of us are feeling. I don’t often quote large passages like this, but in this instance I feel his words are far superior to anything I might concoct, not to mention more authoritative. Here’s what he said:
I felt a shudder down my spine yesterday watching Donald Trump’s fusillade against the press. This is not a moment to be trifled with. It wasn’t his first tirade and it won’t be his last.
I was reminded of my college journalism professor, the late Hugh Cunningham, who would exhort his young charges in a thundering voice to “never let them scare you.” It was his most important lesson. One of Edward R. Murrow’s favorite words was “steady.” That also bears repeating today.
This is a dirty, nasty election. And it is only going to get worse. The reporters in the trenches need no lecture from me. They are walking through daily minefields, bracing themselves against winds of discontent whose effects no one can predict.
I know what it is like to sit in those seats and feel the scorn and even wrath of politicians of all political persuasions. Attacking the press for unfair coverage has long been a bipartisan pursuit. Sometimes it works. I am happy to say that more often it doesn’t. But Trump’s brand of vituperation is particularly personal and vicious. It carries with it the drumbeats of threatening violence. It cannot be left unanswered.
This is not about politics or policy. It’s about protecting our most cherished principles. The relationship between the press and the powerful they cover is by its very definition confrontational. That is how the Founding Fathers envisioned it, with noble clauses of protection enshrined in our Constitution.
Good journalism–the kind that matters–requires reporters who won’t back up, back down, back away or turn around when faced with efforts to intimidate them. It also requires owners and other bosses with guts, who stand by and for their reporters when the heat is on.
I still believe the pen is mightier than the sword. And in these conflicted and troubled times, we should reward the bravery of the men and women not afraid to ask the hard questions of everyone in power. Our nation’s future depends on it.
We, as citizens of a country that might best be described as tumultuous, are dependent upon the press. Despite the shortcomings of infotainment-based newscasts, we still need them to be our eyes and our ears within the halls of power. Governments that act secretly ultimately enslave their people. If we are to preserve our democracy, with must protect the freedom and sanctity of the press and all those who in any way participate in the reporting of the news.
Otherwise, we are every bit as bad as Russia, China, and the Philippines.
Update, June 5: The Republican candidate is ever more firm in his intent to destroy the rights of the press guaranteed by the first amendment. Should he win, anyone who says anything he doesn’t like would be a target. Don’t take my word for it. Watch the words come from his own filthy mouth.