The news media — the topic of this is month’s Global Minnesota Great Decisions dialogue — was in the news a year ago this week with Oscar talk for a film depicting the power, and necessity, of the press.
A year hence the news about media isn’t “Spotlight,” but a harsh light on the press after President Trump tweeted that “The FAKE NEWS media” are the “enemy of the American people,” a slur repeated Friday in his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference just hours before his administration blocked several major media organizations from a White House briefing.
The immediate media reaction to the tweet was how “that kind of language undermines the role of journalists in this country, and potentially their ability to demand accountability,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
But with state and nonstate actors alike targeting reporters with killings, kidnappings, censorship, imprisonment and intimidation, the international impact of Trump’s indiscreet tweet — and his previous presidential declaration that he has a “running war with the media” — may prove more significant.
“The more pernicious impact, and one that may not be immediate, is around the world, because this is the kind of language that we once heard from autocratic leaders,” said Simon.
“In countries where there is a history of violence and repression against the press, this is the kind of language that precedes a crackdown,” he continued. “So when we hear it we condemn it and express our concern, and it’s just going to be more difficult to do that because those leaders are going to be able to say, ‘Well, what’s the difference between what we are doing and the kind of language from the president of the United States?’ And we’re not really going to have a good answer.”
An answer shouldn’t be needed in the first place because the First Amendment has been a beacon to those seeking freedom worldwide.
“The comments made by the leader of our country definitely weaken the United States’ position internationally on a diplomatic level when we ask the United States government to push for a free press,” said Margaux Ewen, advocacy and communications director of Reporters Without Borders, North America. “These comments are incredibly harmful because world leaders are watching.”
And in fact Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised Trump for his harsh treatment of CNN’s Jim Acosta at a previous news conference. “Mr. Trump put the reporter of that media group in his place there,” said Erdogan, who has made his country the world’s largest jailer of journalists.
Springing reporters from such hot spots is another role presidents play, either directly or indirectly. And that crucial component of executive advocacy could be hindered, too.
When CPJ has asked administrations to speak out for journalists in jeopardy, presidents of both parties have responded. “It’s had an impact,” said Simon. “And I worry that will no longer be the case and that our influence will greatly be diminished, and that will make it harder to protect the most vulnerable journalists on whom we depend to bring us the news from the most deadly and dangerous places.”
Saberi, who hails from Fargo and graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., said in an e-mail exchange that, “I soon grew to feel a deep appreciation for the efforts of the U.S. government on my behalf. One day in my cell, I was surprised to see President Obama appear in a report on Iran’s state-run TV, saying something about his concern for my well-being. On another day, my interrogator told me (sounding somewhat annoyed) that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was pushing for my release.”
Saberi added: “When I learned about these efforts, as well as the media coverage and support I was so fortunate to receive from friends and strangers around the world, I felt empowered, like I didn’t have to stand up to injustice by myself anymore. I believe that all of these factors combined to help pressure my captors to release me after 100 days. It’s difficult to say whether the kind of advocacy the U.S. government pursued for me would work in all cases of all journalists detained abroad, but in my situation, I was and still am grateful for it.”
Indeed, a president’s words matter. And while it’s tough to outshout the bully pulpit, Congress — and especially citizens — can make their voices heard, too.
“It’s very important that elected members of Congress stand in solidarity with the press,” said Ewen. “Because world leaders do know the importance of members of the Congress and the role that they play in the United States government.”
And these world leaders, and certainly Congress itself, know the role that everyday Americans — the “We, the people” part of the Constitution — have in influencing Congress and even the president. Citizens too should stand in solidarity with the press, which is not an enemy of the American people but a friend to freedom-seeking people worldwide.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the “Great Decisions” dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.