Leaders of some countries where democracy once flourished are doing whatever they can to silence critical journalists. The coronavirus pandemic offers governments an easy pretext for suppressing the free flow of information. Politicians have presented such moves as temporary measures taken during extraordinary circumstances. Yet there is rarely discussion of when these constraints on the media will return to normal.
In many of these countries — including India, Turkey and Brazil — attacks on press freedom foreshadow larger systemic shifts toward authoritarian rule. In the United States, however, we are dealing with a rather different phenomenon: President Trump’s more personal fight with journalists and their work.
“Hostility toward journalists and news outlets in the United States deepened and intensified, and few attacks were as vitriolic as those that came from the president,” notes the international press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in its annual Press Freedom Index, published last month.
Although it was another abysmal year for reporters covering the Trump administration, the United States actually climbed three spots to No. 45 on the RSF index. Yes, you read that right: there are currently 44 other countries in the world that have better press-freedom records than ours. This puts the United States in the category of countries where the situation for journalists is considered merely “satisfactory” — rather than simply “free.” The small boost in our ranking is no reason for Americans to rejoice; it probably owes just as much to the deterioration of conditions elsewhere as it does to any positive changes at home.
While press freedom has been on a general decline in the United States since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, RSF has nothing positive to say about the minor improvement made by the country in this year’s rankings.
If anything, says its report, the covid-19 crisis has only made matters worse: “The abuse is only getting worse amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, as journalists covering the Trump administration’s response to the crisis are subjected to the president’s attacks during his press briefings.”
Since he took office, we’ve heard often about President Trump’s “war on the media,” but that description of his approach to how he is covered was never completely apt and is becoming less so as we sink deeper into the pandemic and his administration’s bungled response to it.
In fact, in Trump’s personal war, the media is his strongest ally, collectively amplifying his voice to such an extent that almost all others are drowned out. His real adversaries are the individual journalists who refuse to ignore his many failures as president.
Anyone who has been watching Trump’s coronavirus briefings since the pandemic began has undoubtedly witnessed the president’s mean-spirited attacks against reporters who ask questions he doesn’t like. The Post’s White House bureau chief, Philip Rucker, recently asked Trump whether it was appropriate for the president of the United States to use his platform to spread unconfirmed health information and rumors about cures that aren’t grounded in science. That’s an entirely reasonable question.
Trump’s response was predictable: he resorted to name-calling, labeling Rucker a “faker.” The president could have used the opportunity to clarify ridiculous statements he had made moments earlier about the potential efficacy of light and disinfectants to combat the virus. Instead, he opted for the politics of personal destruction.
Trump knows that good reporters such as Rucker — who are unafraid to put tough questions to him — are dangerous to his brand and his potential for winning a second term. Unlike the authoritarians that the president has so often befriended and praised, however, he doesn’t have the means to silence those who try to hold him to account.
Trump’s eagerness, though, to resort to intimidation and insults clearly shows how he thinks. The fact that he’s unable to go further attests to the enduring strength of press freedom in the United States. He has already tried to block journalists or entire news outlets from attending his briefings but, so far, journalists have found their way back into the room.
Trump also understands, begrudgingly maybe, that we do not live in a repressive society. Nor is it one in which, “when somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total,” as he claimed in one of his notorious coronavirus briefings.
Fortunately, we still live in an open society, one ruled by the principles of law and truth. But those hallowed values are increasingly forced to co-exist with this president’s fondness for bullying and deception. For the time being, however, the spirit of American pluralism — beleaguered like no other time in recent memory — is continuing to demonstrate its resilience.
But there is no room for complacency. The threats are all too real.