Like the reporters it represents, the Committee to Protect Journalists didn’t bury the lede in its new report on the press and President Donald Trump.
“The Trump administration has stepped up prosecutions of news sources, interfered in the business of news owners, harassed journalists crossing U.S. borders, and empowered foreign leaders to restrict their own media. But Trump’s most effective ploy has been to destroy the credibility of the press, dangerously undermining truth and consensus even as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to kill thousands of Americans.”
The 30-page, deeply researched report was written by Leonard Downie Jr., a former executive editor of the Washington Post who was so committed to objectivity that he made a virtue of not voting, lest he pull a lever for a candidate the Post would report on.
Downie, now a journalism professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, previously penned a 2013 CPJ report that was highly critical of the Obama administration’s prosecution of suspected government leakers and investigations of journalists who reported on the leaks. So he comes at this issue from a professorial, professional lens, not a partisan one. And in fact, some of the report’s most impactful criticism comes from journalists affiliated with news organizations the president has often favored.
“I believe that President Trump is engaged in the most direct, sustained assault on freedom of the press in our history,” Fox News anchor Chris Wallace said at a Society of Professional Journalists event last December. “He has done everything he can to undercut the media, to try to delegitimize us, and I think his purpose is clear: to raise doubts, when we report critically about him and his administration, that we can be trusted.”
Former Wall Street Journal editor Paul Steiger told Downie: “We now have some of the best news organizations that the world has known. But Trump has created a climate in which the best news, most fact-checked news is not being believed by many people.”
This calculated attack on credibility is dangerous anytime, but particularly in a pandemic, when misinformation or disinformation can literally be lethal. And there’s a lot of it nowadays, according to a new Pew Research Center poll, in which 48% of Americans said “they had encountered at least some made-up news about the pandemic.” Sure, some was political. But the vast majority was about the “magnitude of risk” and “details about the virus” — life-or-death info that can impact individuals and society, given the contagious nature of the coronavirus.
Responsible reporters are trying to bring the truth to Americans. But the enduring undermining of the news media makes this more difficult, particularly for those who believe the “fake news” label lobbed at the press by the president when he encounters factual, but unfavorable, coverage.
“Fake news” is but one of the terms Trump’s deployed in nearly 1,900 Twitter attacks on individuals and institutions involved in the news media, according to a U.S. Press Freedom Tracker database. Others include the Stalinist “enemy of the people,” “dishonest” and “corrupt.”
“What concerns me,” former Trump White House communications director Michael Dubke told Downie, “is that authoritarian leaders who had already placed restrictions on their press are using President Trump’s words to justify what they are doing. It’s convenient for them to do so.”
Frank Sesno, a former CNN anchor who now directs George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, told Downie, “When the president calls the press the enemy of the people, he encourages every autocrat, every dictator who wants to shut down freedom of the press. ... It reverberates around the world.”
It sure does — especially “fake news,” which has had a very real effect on press freedom in 26 countries that have enacted or introduced laws and government rules restricting online media and journalistic access in the name of fake news. Leaders of Poland, Hungary, Turkey, China, Philippines, and Cambodia are among those cracking down on journalists who have cited the example of Trump and “fake news,” often after meeting with and being praised by him, Sarah Repucci, vice president for research and analysis at Freedom House, told Downie.
Transparency is especially essential in countries like China, where the virus originated. But instead of encouraging press freedom, Trump’s “caustic rhetoric and continuing attacks on journalists are echoing around the world,” David Ardia, co-director of the University of North Carolina Center for Media Law and Policy, told Downie. “In other countries,” he continued, “they’re thinking, ‘If the U.S. does not value independent journalism, why should we have it?’ It’s diminishing journalism around the world.”
The president may in truth not value independent journalism. But most Americans do. And it’s enshrined in the First Amendment, which should be a primary presidential focus, just as it was with previous presidents who held the U.S. up as a free-speech beacon. Tacitly encouraging dictators to dim that beacon leaves the world in the dark.
The news media is imperfect, of course, and the CPJ report rightly takes it to task on many levels, including “changes in the norms of the mainstream news media [that] have contributed to the difficulty that audiences can have in separating fact from opinion.” This can obscure the observation from Martin Baron, the editor of the Washington Post, who once said, “We’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work.”
As for the administration, the CPJ report ends with nine recommendations. Several are specific about Freedom of Information Act requests, harassment of reporters at the border, increasing on-the-record access to administration officials and other crucial issues, like reckoning for the killing of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Most profoundly, the president should “publicly recognize and affirm the role of a free press in a democracy and refrain from delegitimizing or discrediting the media or journalists performing their vital function — not least during a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Indeed, America’s health — and the vitality of America’s democracy — depends on it.
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.