The headline finding of this week’s report on press freedom in 2020 by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) was that more journalists have been imprisoned for their work than ever before, and China is the world’s worst jailer for the second year in a row.
The report, and other material published by CPJ in conjunction with its release, invested a great deal of effort in blaming the dismal state of press freedom on President Donald Trump.
CJP excoriated Trump for making the worldwide press freedom situation worse because he was vehemently critical of the media, even though no journalists were actually imprisoned by the United States as the report went to press, and CPJ conceded that a great deal of hostility toward journalists emanated from Trump’s devoted adversaries during what the report delicately describes as a “wave of protests”:
Lack of global leadership on democratic values – particularly from the United States, where President Donald Trump has inexhaustibly denigrated the press and cozied up to dictators such as Egyptian President Abdelfattah el-Sisi – has perpetuated the crisis. As authoritarians leveraged Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric to justify their actions – particularly in Egypt – the number of journalists jailed on “false news” charges steadily increased. This year, 34 journalists were jailed for “false news,” compared with 31 last year.
Within the United States, no journalists were jailed at the time of CPJ’s prison census, but an unprecedented 110 journalists were arrested or criminally charged in 2020 and around 300 were assaulted, the majority by law enforcement, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. At least 12 still face criminal charges, some of which carry jail terms. Observers told CPJ that the polarized political climate, militarized law enforcement, and vitriol toward the media combined during a wave of protests to eradicate norms that once afforded journalists police protection.
CPJ also found “the lack of trust in media in the U.S. to be particularly dangerous during the global pandemic,” without dwelling on how the media might have earned a good deal of that distrust.
A separate CPJ analysis published along with the report described a “marred press freedom landscape following the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests in which journalists were handcuffed, shoved, and shot at with less-lethal ammunition,” putting most of the blame for violence against reporters on the police. CPJ and its correspondents chided the police for growing hostile towards the media, again without discussing what reporters might have done to make the police more inclined to see them as adversaries instead of “neutral third observers,” as Jason Reich of The New York Times Company unironically put it.
The only person CPJ could think to blame for more journalists getting arrested in the midst of violent riots was, of course, Trump:
From the time he declared his candidacy in 2015 to today, Trump has tweeted negatively about the media more than 2,490 times, according to a U.S. Press Freedom Tracker database, and his verbal thrashings of the media are regular fare at his rallies. This rhetoric creates a permissive environment for physical attacks on the media, said Marty Steffens, a member of the North America Committee of the International Press Institute and a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.
“By fomenting the idea that the press is the enemy of the people…you really put journalists in the bullseye,” said Steffens, who spoke with CPJ via phone. “Because the president pushes back against journalists and doesn’t respect them, local officials are empowered to do the same thing.”
The article took a brief pause from lashing Trump to make an interesting observation about the relationship between police and the media during high-stress situations like mass demonstrations: The proliferation of cell phone cameras makes it harder for the authorities to distinguish professional journalists from citizen onlookers or active participants in chaotic and violent situations. Everyone is pointing a camera at the police now, from commentators to perpetrators.
Since the early days of his administration, Trump has been blamed for damaging press freedom and putting journalists in greater danger around the world by loudly, frequently, and sometimes hyperbolically criticizing the media — even though he has taken far fewer concrete actions against journalists than his Democrat predecessor, Barack Obama, who was revered by the press even as he spied on them.
Obama was also harshly critical of the small subset of the media he viewed as opponents, particularly Fox News, and he continues repeating his criticism to this day. Obama’s constant attacks on dissident media were not portrayed as a menace to press freedom.
The reason why lies with a toxic guild mentality that poses a longer-term threat to the quality of journalism, and freedom of speech, than any of Trump’s fulminations. Press freedom organizations make an implicit assumption that there is a guild of “legitimate” journalists in the Western world, and the privileges of the guild are synonymous with “press freedom.”
If the guild supports a politician like Obama, or Joe Biden — who is already complaining about the few reporters who dare to ask him challenging questions — then no matter how authoritarian that political leader might be, no matter how hard he might crack down on particular journalists and media outlets he dislikes, he will not be portrayed as a threat to national or global “press freedom.” Indeed, the guild of journalists often supports its favored politicians when they treat reporters in a way that would never be accepted from Republicans.
How is it possible for any sincere advocate of press freedom to regard Trump’s angry tweets about media outlets he dislikes as a greater menace than Big Tech corporations aggressively deplatforming speech they don’t like? Members in good standing of the journalism guild know they don’t have to worry about getting deplatformed or censored, so there’s no real threat to press freedom? That’s an odd attitude coming from advocates who claim to be deeply concerned about the fate of citizen journalists in China.
The journalism guild itself is becoming one of the worst menaces to genuine press freedom in the United States, but few press freedom advocates seem willing to admit it. Among the worst of the many dismal media scandals in the Trump era was the aggressive suppression of the completely accurate story about Hunter Biden’s laptop — a story buried by guild journalists who knew it was true, but simply did not want the public to hear about it. The journalism guild might not be able to toss reporters into gulags like China’s fascist rulers do, but they did manage to stuff the New York Post in Twitter jail for much of the presidential election.
It could be argued that Trump might have spoken out more forcefully against regimes that routinely imprison dissident reporters, but the track record of free nations using maximum pressure to defend press freedom in authoritarian regimes before Trump was not great, and it probably will not improve much in the next administration. The authoritarians always justify their crackdowns on journalism as crusades against disinformation — which is exactly the same justification deployed by Big Tech’s increasingly frisky censors in America.
As CPJ observed, that tendency has only grown worse, in nations free and imprisoned, during the coronavirus pandemic. If the blogging revolution in the first decade of the new millennium redefined journalism, today’s atmosphere of deplatforming and Big Media guild privilege is redefining it again, and the definition is growing more narrow.
In theory, our smartphones make us all journalists now. In practice, the people who make big money and wield enormous political power by controlling the flow of information are more hostile to genuine press freedom than ever.