The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How it became normal for public officials to attack journalists

A California sheriff’s targeting of a reporter is the latest instance of authorities misusing power. ‘These are steps toward autocracy,’ says one press freedom advocate.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said on April 26 that he's investigating who leaked a use-of-force video to L.A. Times journalist Alene Tchekmedyian. (Video: Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department via Facebook)
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Los Angeles Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian had a big scoop: Internal documents showed that officials in the county sheriff’s department had tried to cover up an incident in which a deputy knelt on a jail inmate’s head.

But after her latest article about the blossoming scandal, Sheriff Alex Villanueva called a news conference to forcefully deny the allegations — and to take aim at Tchekmedyian. Standing in front of a placard with photos of the reporter, a political rival and the county’s inspector general, Villanueva announced the three were part of a criminal leak investigation.

“What did they know and when did they know it?” read the text over the photo display, which resembled a wanted poster.

Public officials have long been known to grumble about perceived unfairness in news coverage. But Villanueva’s effort to publicly implicate a reporter for doing her job — an attempt to intimidate her, some argued — reflects a brazen trend of officials using government power to punish or push back on journalists for articles they don’t like.

“It is another form of degrading trust in our institutions,” said Tom Rosenstiel, a University of Maryland journalism professor and the former executive director of the American Press Institute. “These are steps toward autocracy.”

Among the recent incidents:

  • When a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter wrote an article revealing a security flaw in a state education website, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (R) denounced him as “a hacker” and asked police to investigate it as a crime. Months later, the prosecutor announced he would not file charges.
  • In Iowa last year, Polk County Attorney John Sarcone (D) prosecuted a Des Moines Register reporter who had been arrested while covering racial justice protests in 2020, charging her with failure to disperse and interfering with official acts. A jury eventually acquitted Andrea Sahouri of the misdemeanor charges after a trial that baffled press-freedom advocates.
  • A North Carolina judge last year blocked journalists from his courtroom for several weeks without explanation; after a local newspaper publisher protested, the judge had him handcuffed and thrown out, threatening to hold him in contempt. The case was especially shocking to First Amendment advocates, as the Supreme Court has broadly affirmed the right of journalists to have access to criminal court proceedings.
  • A Republican state lawmaker in Tennessee introduced a resolution in January targeting the Associated Press for its investigation into patterns of discrimination and racism in the military. While the story was widely praised, Rep. Bud Hulsey’s resolution called it “the lowest form of yellow journalism” and said the AP “should be held accountable by the American public and their elected officials.” Hulsey eventually withdrew the resolution.
  • A Florida county commission last year bid farewell to a departing local columnist who had written pieces critical of the all-Republican panel by unanimously passing a sarcastically worded resolution mocking her work and immigrant background. One of the commissioners told The Post, “If she can dish it, she should be able to take it.”

Observers see a number of potential reasons officials have been inclined to use their powers of office to undermine journalists. The free-for-all of social media, rife with attacks on the press, may have contributed to a climate of greater impunity, said Kirstin McCudden, vice president of editorial for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports free-speech issues.

She thinks former president Donald Trump’s relentless demonization of journalists as “the enemy of the people” and purveyors of “fake news” contributed as well.

Iowa reporter acquitted in a trial that shocked press freedom advocates

With many Americans saying they mistrust the press, some public officials “think there is a political advantage” in attacking journalists directly, Rosenstiel said.

More than 100 journalists in the United States were arrested or detained while reporting in 2020. Many were caught up in police sweeps while covering protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, and most saw their charges dropped by prosecutors who recognized they were simply on the job — but not all.

Incidents such as these have prompted the nonprofit Reporters Without Borders to rank the United States 44th in its global survey of press freedoms — behind such countries as Botswana, Cyprus and Uruguay.

Villanueva — a Democrat recently estranged from the local party who has appeared at some GOP events during his campaign for reelection this year — has a long-running feud with the Times, Southern California’s largest newspaper. One campaign ad of his showcases his letter to the paper’s editorial board declining to participate in its endorsement interviews, Los Angeles Magazine reported. In big letters at the top of the ad: “#$@!% YOUR ENDORSEMENT.”

In his news conference Tuesday, Villanueva suggested that the allegations against him were manufactured by a cabal of his political rivals — and implied the Times was part of it. He turned to directly address Tchekmedyian, who was there to cover the news conference. “Maybe you need to start clarifying exactly what you did with this and who did you get it from and when did you get it,” he said to the reporter. “That’s a question for you.”

Hours later, after Villanueva’s outburst went viral on social media, he attempted to backtrack, calling the response to his comments an “incredible frenzy of misinformation.” On Twitter, he wrote, “We have no interest in pursuing, nor are we pursuing, criminal charges against any reporters.”

Kevin Merida, the executive editor of the Times, called Villanueva’s news conference an “outrageous” attack on the reporter’s First Amendment rights.

“His attempt to criminalize news reporting goes against well-established constitutional law,” Merida said in a statement. The newspaper’s lawyers warned Villanueva that threatening to prosecute Tchekmedyian “is an abuse of your official position that risks subjecting you and the county to legal liability,” according to a copy of their letter made public by the Times.

Villanueva’s actions affect more than just Tchekmedyian, said Katie Townsend, legal director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “It sends an intimidating message to all journalists that if they report truthful but embarrassing information about the department, they will be targeted, too,” she said. “That’s why the use of a tactic like this is so pernicious. Not only is it retaliatory, but it also threatens to chill other important news reporting in the public interest.”

Press freedom advocates were similarly alarmed last fall when Parson, the Missouri governor, launched his attack on the St. Louis newspaper. The Post-Dispatch’s Josh Renaud reported on a security vulnerability he discovered on the Missouri state teachers website, in which the Social Security numbers of about 100,000 school employees could be seen by anyone examining the website’s source code. Parson, though, insisted that Renaud was “acting against the state agency to compromise teachers’ personal information in an attempt to embarrass the state and sell headlines for their news outlet.”

Missouri governor accuses journalist who warned state about cybersecurity flaw of criminal ‘hacking’

But according to documents obtained by The Washington Post, Renaud had alerted officials to the security vulnerability before publishing his article so they could have a chance to fix it. Some state officials had even proposed putting out a statement thanking “a member of the media who brought this to the state’s attention.”

At Parson’s behest, the State Highway Patrol investigated the matter for months. In the end, a local prosecutor declined to bring criminal charges. “This decision is a relief. But it does not repair the harm done to me and my family,” Renaud wrote in a statement. “This was a political persecution of a journalist, plain and simple.”

Isadora Rangel, the columnist who was singled out for ridicule by the Brevard County Commission in Florida when she left her job last year, was equally incensed.

“They feel entitled to use that time devoted to county issues for personal issues,” she told The Post at the time. “Is that really what government is about? Is it the job of an elected official to use his official position to go on personal tirades and issue attacks against people?”