In 1981, a group of U.S. foreign correspondents established the Committee to Protect Journalists, an nonprofit organization they dedicated to keeping reporters worldwide from being killed or jailed for doing their jobs.
The founders, recognizing the privilege they had been afforded by the First Amendment, decided they could not stand idly by while colleagues elsewhere were persecuted for speaking truth to power.
For more than three decades, the committee has primarily concentrated its efforts on conflict zones and repression abroad.
But last fall, during the rise of now-President-elect Donald Trump — after he mocked a disabled New York Times reporter and called journalists “scum” and threatened to take away their rights — the CPJ turned its attention toward home.
They broke their politics-free tradition and issued a scathing statement calling Trump a “threat to press freedom unknown in modern history” and later wrote a letter to Vice President-elect Mike Pence pleading for reason and less hostility.
These moves were, in many ways, unprecedented, yet they went mostly unnoticed outside the media world.
All that changed Sunday night — because of Meryl Streep.
During an emotional, off-topic speech at the Golden Globes, Streep used her time after receiving the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award not to address her own successful career but to scorn Trump.
She did not directly mention his name, but she alluded to his hostility toward journalists, then called on the audience to join her in supporting press freedom — at the annual film and TV awards show put on by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
“We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call them on the carpet for every outrage. That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in our Constitution,” Streep said. “So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood foreign press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists, because we’re going to need them going forward, and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.”
Suddenly, the CPJ had the attention of Hollywood’s most elite stars, who brought with them an audience at home learning about the organization’s work for the first time.
The committee’s full name and Twitter handle, @pressfreedom, appeared in hundreds of thousands of Facebook posts and tweets from journalists, celebrities and average viewers about the Golden Globes and Streep’s speech.
“Dove right into @pressfreedom website after Meryl’s brilliant and important speech,” tweeted one woman from California. “Will be donating tomorrow.”
Another man tweeted about his AmazonSmile account, which donates 0.5 percent of the purchase price of eligible products ordered through Amazon to the user’s charity of choice, and said that Streep’s speech inspired him to change his beneficiary to CPJ.
Former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather’s Facebook post citing Streep’s shoutout to CPJ drew more than 100,000 likes and nearly 15,000 shares.
Mia Farrow chimed in, as did journalist Maria Shriver.
Almost immediately after the CPJ mention Sunday night, the organization used social media to thank Streep for her support of press freedom and to share the link to its donation page. The organization did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday morning.
The committee’s primary role is to advocate and take action when journalists are “censored, harassed, threatened, jailed, kidnapped, or killed for their work, without regard to political ideology,” according to its website. The organization documents cases, tracks safety “hot spots” across the globe and collects data on the numbers of journalists killed, imprisoned or exiled each year.
In 2016, according to CPJ’s data, 48 journalists were killed, and 259 were imprisoned. Since 2008, 456 have been exiled.
Streep’s speech forced the organization’s work into the spotlight in a way only she could, with her high-profile and far-reaching cultural reach, but hers was not the first awards-ceremony rallying cry made on behalf of American journalists.
In November, just a few weeks after Trump’s surprise victory, CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour addressed Trump’s hostility toward reporters while accepting the Burton Benjamin Memorial Award from CPJ for her dedication to press freedom.
“I never thought in a million years that I would be standing up here … appealing, really, for the freedom and the safety of American journalists at home,” Amanpour said.
She continued, comparing the president-elect’s attitude to those of worrisome foreign leaders.
As all the international journalists we honor in this room tonight and every year know only too well: First the media is accused of inciting, then sympathizing, then associating — until they suddenly find themselves accused of being full-fledged terrorists and subversives. Then they end up in handcuffs, in cages, in kangaroo courts, in prison — and then who knows?
She called for a recommitment to fact-based reporting without fear and challenged reporters not to stand for “being labeled crooked or lying or failing,” all adjectives Trump has used to describe media outlets such as the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Huffington Post and Politico.
Trump spent Sunday, the day of the Golden Globes ceremony, sending several tweets disparaging the news media, calling the them “fake” and “dishonest.”
In a brief phone interview with the New York Times after the ceremony, the president-elect dismissed Streep as “a Hillary lover” and said he was “not surprised” that he had been critiqued by “liberal movie people.” Trump told the Times he had not watched the awards ceremony or seen Streep’s speech.
In it, she referenced an incident from the campaign trail, recorded on video, when Trump mocked and imitated a New York Times reporter with a condition called arthrogryposis, which limits joint movement.
He has on numerous occasions denied that he was mocking the reporter, and he repeated that argument again in the Times interview late Sunday. He “grew heated,” according to the Times.
Times reporter Patrick Healy described the phone call:
“I was never mocking anyone,” Mr. Trump said. “I was calling into question a reporter who had gotten nervous because he had changed his story,” arguing that the reporter had been trying to back away from an article he wrote in September 2001 about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and elsewhere that month.
“People keep saying I intended to mock the reporter’s disability, as if Meryl Streep and others could read my mind, and I did no such thing,” he said in the interview.
“And remember, Meryl Streep introduced Hillary Clinton at her convention, and a lot of these people supported Hillary,” Mr. Trump said, referring to Ms. Streep’s remarks at the Democratic National Convention last summer on behalf of his opponent, Mrs. Clinton.
The President-elect repeated that defense on Twitter early Monday morning, calling Streep “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood.”
“She is a Hillary flunky who lost big,” he wrote, and continued his tweet storm to argue that he did not, “for the 100th time,” mock a disabled New York Times reporter.
Trump did not address Streep’s call to support the Committee to Protect Journalists, but he called the media “very dishonest.”
The Golden Globes was the last major awards show before Trump’s inauguration Friday. The president-elect told the Times that — despite the rounds of applause from the star-studded audience during Streep’s speech — he remained confident that his inauguration audience, including celebrities, would be immense.
“We are going to have an unbelievable, perhaps record-setting turnout for the inauguration, and there will be plenty of movie and entertainment stars,” Trump told the Times. “All the dress shops are sold out in Washington. It’s hard to find a great dress for this inauguration.”
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