Reporters Without Borders’s (RSF) 2018 press freedom index found “growing animosity towards journalists” around the world:
Hostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders, and the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism pose a threat to democracies.
The climate of hatred is steadily more visible in the Index, which evaluates the level of press freedom in 180 countries each year. Hostility towards the media from political leaders is no longer limited to authoritarian countries such as Turkey (down two at 157th) and Egypt (161st), where “media-phobia” is now so pronounced that journalists are routinely accused of terrorism and all those who don’t offer loyalty are arbitrarily imprisoned.
More and more democratically-elected leaders no longer see the media as part of democracy’s essential underpinning, but as an adversary to which they openly display their aversion. The United States, the country of the First Amendment, has fallen again in the Index under Donald Trump, this time two places to 45th. A media-bashing enthusiast, Trump has referred to reporters “enemies of the people,” the term once used by Joseph Stalin.
RSF warned that “political leaders who fuel loathing for reporters bear heavy responsibility because they undermine the concept of public debate based on facts instead of propaganda. To dispute the legitimacy of journalism today is to play with extremely dangerous political fire.”
In 2017, the 45th President of the United States helped sink the country to 45th place by labeling the press an “enemy of the American people” in a series of verbal attacks toward journalists, attempts to block White House access to multiple media outlets, routine use of the term “fake news” in retaliation for critical reporting, and calling for media outlets’ broadcasting licenses to be revoked. President Trump has routinely singled out news outlets and individual journalists for their coverage of him, and retweeted several violent memes targeting CNN.
The violent anti-press rhetoric from the White House has been coupled with an increase in the number of press freedom violations at the local level as journalists run the risk of arrest for covering protests or simply attempting to ask public officials questions. Reporters have even been subject to physical assault while on the job.
With this background, consider the verbal assault that Trump launched on Sunday over his meeting with New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger. Trump had characterized the meeting as one in which he and Sulzberger discussed “the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media.” Sulzberger put out a statement, based on his notes and those of the Times’s editorial page editor, James Bennet (who accompanied Sulzberger), setting the record straight about what was discussed in the meeting. Sulzberger explained:
I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous. I told him that although the phrase ‘fake news’ is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists ‘the enemy of the people.’ I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.
I repeatedly stressed that this is particularly true abroad, where the president’s rhetoric is being used by some regimes to justify sweeping crackdowns on journalists. I warned that it was putting lives at risk, that it was undermining the democratic ideals of our nation, and that it was eroding one of our country’s greatest exports: a commitment to free speech and a free press.
Having been called out for essentially lying about a meeting on the subject of lying about the press, Trump didn’t deny what occurred. He instead doubled down. In language worthy of a tin-pot dictator, he tweeted: “When the media — driven insane by their Trump Derangement Syndrome — reveals internal deliberations of our government, it truly puts the lives of many, not just journalists, at risk! Very unpatriotic!” He continued, “No matter how much they try to distract and cover it up, our country is making great progress under my leadership and I will never stop fighting for the American people! As an example, the failing New York Times. .. and the Amazon Washington Post do nothing but write bad stories even on very positive achievements — and they will never change!” Amazon, of course, does not own or control The Post. Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Post.
Trump’s anti-press venom, which he tempered only briefly after the murder of five journalists in Annapolis a month ago, is the rhetoric of Stalin and modern-day thugs such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin of Russia (whose regime has been associated with the murder of multiple journalists), President Xi Jinping of China, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi — on whom Trump routinely lavishes praise.
Nearly as bad as Trump’s attacks on the press and its work (including recently barring a CNN reporter who had the temerity to shout questions on behalf of the press pool) is the Republican Party’s acquiescence and the cheerleading from the right-wing media, including Fox “News” evening hosts. (One wonders how Fox News executives, who recently offered support for the CNN reporter, justify the nonstop assault on the press by its own shows’ hosts.) The GOP is so invested in its cult of personality and the politics of anger and outrage against “liberal elites” that it cannot bring itself to object to the assault on one of our most cherished freedoms. Republicans are so cowed by the base and by Trump that they remain silent in the face of language they would have deplored coming from the Soviets in the Cold War, thereby normalizing Trump’s outrageous attacks. Complaints of press bias that fueled conservative anger for years have now morphed into populist vitriol directed at independent sources of knowledge, anyone who criticizes the president (e.g. former national security figures) and on truth itself.
The Republican Party’s decision to abandon norms is one of the principal reasons many Americans (especially women, college-educated and suburban voters) are fleeing the party. Having only one of the major parties defend democratic values puts our constitutional system at risk. Fortunately, for all the venom Trump manufactures in his base, he’s managed to wake up the rest of the country to the danger he poses to liberal democracy. Voting Trump and his sycophants in Congress out of office cannot come soon enough for the sake of American democracy — and press freedom around the world.