For decades, Sandra Mims Rowe was a rigorous newspaper editor who demanded deep reporting from the journalists she led. Her newsrooms in cities including Norfolk and Portland, Ore., won awards — and respect — because she pushed for greater truths.
So it’s not surprising that Rowe would do the same when an idea surfaced at the Committee to Protect Journalists, where she has been board chairwoman for five years.
The idea: CPJ would make a strong statement against Donald Trump on First Amendment grounds — the kind of thing the organization had never done before. CPJ’s global mission is to try to keep journalists from being jailed or killed; but it hasn’t been involved before in politics.
“What was the evidence that Trump was a threat to press freedom?” she wanted to know. The evidence, delivered in a staff memo, was overwhelming. It made the case that Trump not only despises journalists — “scum,” he calls them, and “corrupt” — but also that he has no understanding or respect for the role they play in our democracy. He has repeatedly stated that he wants to change the laws that allow journalists to do their jobs.
And so, after a board vote, CPJ’s unprecedented statement went public last week.
Measured and restrained, it builds to a powerful conclusion: “This is not about picking sides in an election. This is recognizing that a Trump presidency represents a threat to press freedom unknown in modern history.”
In an interview, Rowe said that Trump thinks the media exists “only to satisfy his needs and give him publicity.” When journalists hold him accountable or report negative facts, “it must be a coordinated attack on him.”
What finally pushed CPJ to approve a resolution and issue the statement, she said, was the realization that the organization owed this not just to American journalists and citizens but to those around the world.
“We at CPJ use the United States as an example, a beacon to the world,” she said. “With Trump’s rhetoric, it would embolden despots and dictators who are looking for an excuse” to restrict press rights or endanger journalism.
The statement gives an example: “When MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asked him in December if his admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin was at all tempered by the country’s history of critical journalists being killed, his response was: “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.”
CPJ’s statement wasn’t the only strong defense of the First Amendment to be published last week. After Trump’s attorney demanded that the New York Times retract an article — one that quoted, by name, two women who said that Trump had groped them without their consent — the Times’s newsroom attorney, David McCraw, made a response for the ages.
In equally measured, and equally pointed, terms, he said the paper would do no such thing: “We did what the law allows: We published newsworthy information about a subject of deep public concern. If Mr. Trump disagrees, if he believes that American citizens had no right to hear what these women had to say and that the law of this country forces us and those who would dare to criticize him to stand silent or be punished, we welcome the opportunity to have a court set him straight.”
The letter, despite the lawyerly language, had a certain “Dirty Harry” feel to it. That last line, less elegantly rendered might be: “Go ahead. Make my day.” After all, Trump surely does not want to endure the discovery phase that such a trial would bring. (He should have learned that years ago when he sued Timothy L. O’Brien, then a reporter at the Times, for libel. O’Brien’s lowballing of his wealth in the book “TrumpNation” caused $5 billion in damage, Trump claimed. A New Jersey judge threw out the case.)
Statements such as CPJ’s and McCraw’s, eloquent as they are, certainly won’t change the minds of Trump’s ardent supporters or of the candidate himself.
Still, their words — and the defense of the First Amendment that underpins them — make a difference. They remind journalists, and I hope citizens, that what we do is important, and that it is worth protecting.
And it lets them know that there are people and institutions willing to stand up to a bully and say, “No, you can’t.” Not in America.
For more by Margaret Sullivan,
go to wapo.st/sullivan.