Journalists have not had a lot to celebrate in the 21st century. The economic model for news has mostly collapsed, the birth of social media has meant competing too often with misinformation, and threats to a free press have steadily risen. So as you can imagine there was great joy on Friday when two of our own were given society’s top accolade, the Nobel Peace Prize.
At a moment when public trust in the media in the United States is at a near-record low, the prizes announced for Maria Ressa of the Philippines, who was convicted of criminal charges for her aggressive reporting on her homeland’s strongman president Rodrigo Duterte, and Russia’s Dmitry Muratov, who’s seen six of his reporters or contributors murdered while reporting on the regime of Vladimir Putin, were a burst of vindication — that journalism is essential to democracy, that reporting is an act of courage, and that truth still matters.
But the Nobel Peace Prize — awarded by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, often controversially — is, in reality, a double-edge sword. In seeking to illuminate those who do the most exceptional work and who (in some cases, including the 2021 prize) even risk their lives for a better world, the Nobel Peace Prize is also a reminder to everyone else that if you really want global peace and understanding in your lifetime, it’s time to start upping your banal game.
No one gets this better than one of this year’s honorees, Maria Ressa. As the war for the truth waged by her and her news organization, Rappler, against the Philippines’ murderous Duterte gave Ressa a bigger platform, she constantly reminded the journalism world that the moral value of reporting the news comes neither from chasing clicks nor from some kind of quiet self-satisfaction of imagining one’s self as an impartial umpire in a world going mad.
“In a battle for facts, in a battle for truth, journalism is activism,” Ressa told NPR in a 2020 interview. Those last three words should be tattooed on every journalist’s forearm, so they can see it every time they’re lied to by a government official or a climate-denying spin doctor.
Although Ressa’s fight has been focused on the massive corruption of the Philippines, she made it clear that her warning was meant for a wider audience. On the criminalization of journalism, she added: “This is how you transform a democracy. This is death by a thousand cuts. The same thing is happening in the United States.”
It’s fitting that — thanks to Friday’s Nobel Peace Prize — world history will likely cherish Ressa, Muratov, and their brand of death-defying journalism far longer than it will remember the totems of modern U.S. media like recently retired Washington Post editor Marty Baron — whose uninspiring response to the threat to democracy posed by Donald Trump was, famously that “we’re not at war … we’re at work” — or the New York Times’ Dean Baquet, who doesn’t see journalism as activism but something he blandly calls “sophisticated true objectivity.”
The Nobel honors for Ressa and Muratov came at an especially fraught moment for democracy, both around the world but especially in the United States. The defeat of Trump in the 2020 election and the failure of what we increasingly see was an overt coup attempt on Jan. 6, 2021, hasn’t stopped his massive movement from solidifying around the Big Lie that President Biden’s victory was stolen. It seems increasing clear that not only is Trump running again in 2024 but that he is the strong front-runner for the GOP nomination, and that he is teeing up loyal true believers in key positions or backed by new, antidemocratic legislation to declare him the winner, regardless of the factual outcome.
A small but dedicated gaggle of American journalists has been warning about Trump’s slow-motion coup for months. And yet when a late-night comedian, HBO’s Bill Maher, laid out this threat to the American Experiment in a clear and direct eight-minute monologue on Friday night, millions of viewers seemed shocked and alarmed. Clearly they weren’t getting the proper sense of urgency from mainstream elite media in the United States, which has used Biden’s victory as a moment to bathe in the familiar comfort of “both sides are to blame” journalism.
“I’m astonished that more people don’t see, or can’t face, America’s existential crisis,” Hillary Clinton — who lost that 2016 election to Trump despite 3 million more popular votes — tweeted recently. Her words were reported in a strikingly on-target column by media critic Eric Boehlert headlined: “America isn’t guaranteed a happy ending.” He also quoted the former GOP strategist Stuart Stevens: “We can’t imagine the ending of American democracy, but it can happen.”
Instead, the nation’s most read or most watched news media largely ignored the shocking revelation of the Eastman Memo, a blueprint drafted by a top conservative lawyer for Team Trump that was meant to walk then-Vice President Mike Pence through the steps of a successful coup (thankfully Pence ignored it, but only with the unlikely encouragement of a former VP, Dan Quayle). Instead, the Beltway press has just staged a kind of a summer-of-the-shark redux of warped priorities, ignoring the new terrorists determined to strike inside the United States.
More broadly, the recent coverage of the crisis over raising the U.S. debt limit, largely spun as the latest both-sides-broken-Washington brouhaha rather than what it really was — a stunning, nihilistic rejection by today’s Republicans of their role in a functioning government — could serve as Exhibit A. Likewise, the race to embrace a “Biden chaos” narrative around both his bucks-stops-here decision to end America’s pointless “forever war” or a COVID-19 spike that was largely the result of right-wing misinformation exploited by GOP governors.
For all the Beltway journalists so eager to restore a breathless access journalism and the most cynical, “savvy” form of politics-as-a-game news coverage, the embrace by both the Nobel committee and the wider world of the more daring vision of journalism as a chief weapon in the war against rising neo-fascism — the stance so boldly adopted by Ressa and Muratov — ought to serve as a wake-up call.
We should also remember this: One key reason that these two particular journalists won the Nobel Peace Prize is that the award has to go to a living person. In Putin’s Russia, the six people who’ve worked under Muratov and were murdered — such as Anna Politkovskaya, gunned down in her apartment building in 2006 after reporting on her government’s handling of its war with Chechnya — are among the 21 who’ve been killed under Putin. Likewise, 19 Philippine journalists have been killed since Duterte took power, and globally, scores more have been slain trying to expose the truth about Mexico’s corrupt drug trade or other corruption. Not only can Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi not win his deserved Nobel Prize, we can’t even find his hacked-up body.
It’s easy for journalists in the United States — once a pioneer in press freedom but lagging in the latest world ranking at just 44th place — to look at this as a somewhere-else problem. It’s rare for an American reporter to be killed for doing their job (although arrests skyrocketed in 2020). But that’s the point, isn’t it? If U.S. journalists don’t use our shrinking press freedom — while we still have it — to sound the alarm bells about the growing threat of a 47th president who calls the media “the enemy of the people” and is willing to use antidemocratic means to return to power, the risk grows that the civil liberties of the First Amendment may not survive the 2020s.
The future of American democracy depends, frankly, on whether journalists stop burying their head in “the work” of balanced-but-misleading reporting and admit that, yes, actually, we are at war. We need to glom onto Maria Ressa’s vision — that when the truth is under attack, truth-telling is not a clinical science. Journalism is activism.
» READ MORE: SIGN UP: The Will Bunch Newsletter