Sunday was World Press Freedom Day, a date set by the United Nations to celebrate the importance of a free press and its defense from efforts to do it in.
If there was ever a critical time for fact-based journalism, it is now — in the age of the coronavirus. Yet, the pandemic is exacerbating the many crises that threaten such journalism with extinction, not just in autocracies like China and Russia, but here.
“Lamestream Media is totally CORRUPT, the Enemy of the People!” President Donald Trump tweeted Sunday, repeating a phrase honed by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to attack ideological enemies marked for elimination. Joe Biden, in comparison, issued a statement praising journalists for “upholding free and open democracies, both at home and around the world.”
For President Trump, World Press Freedom Day meant nothing more than another chance to smear journalists who challenge his lies and deceptions about COVID-19.
For the rest of us, it should serve as a vital reminder that the coming years will be pivotal for the survival of press freedom, under threat from a series of interconnected crises, compounded by the coronavirus. These are succinctly described in a new report by the organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
“We are entering a decisive decade for journalism,” says RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire. “The coronavirus pandemic illustrates the negative factors threatening the right to reliable information.” In other words, the virus makes already huge threats to a free press that much worse.
COVID-19 offers authoritarian regimes a chance to impose measures on frightened publics that might otherwise cause problems. Hungary, among many examples, recently passed laws making it easier to prosecute journalists. RSF calls this the Geopolitical Crisis.
China (No. 177 of 180 on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index) was already promoting its authoritarian model worldwide as an alternative to liberal democracy — including a “new world media order” in which journalism is tightly controlled.
The pandemic highlights the danger of such a model: China was able to hide the outbreak by suppressing the remaining small space for investigative journalism that it permitted before the crisis. Even still, the free press of Hong Kong and Taiwan were able to report about it. Imagine if those media outlets were crushed in the future under Beijing’s thumb.
Meantime, the coronavirus era amplifies the Technological Crisis that permits propaganda, rumors, and conspiracy theories to compete unimpeded with fact-based journalism. “The pandemic has amplified the spread of rumors and fake news as quickly as the virus itself,” the RSF report notes. This includes state troll armies from Russia (No. 149 in the index) and China that spread rumors that the virus was manufactured by the U.S. military.
Of course, in the United States, online conspiracy theories are promoted by tweets from the president and his avid supporters, including Fox News commentators.
Which brings us to the Democratic Crisis, in which leaders of democracies “openly foment hatred of journalists.” In this category, RSF cites Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro (No. 107), who “continue to denigrate the media.”
This last category, I believe, is crucial. Americans may be inured to Trump’s pile-on against fact-based media, but the coronavirus era lays bare just how dangerous it has become. RSF already ranks the United States No. 45 in press freedom (a ranking I believe is overly harsh, so far). But the president’s vitriol against solid reporting will become increasingly dangerous as public anger mounts over the mishandling of COVID-19.
Indeed, the president is priming his base to blame “enemies” for his personal failures. We have seen the previews of coming nightmares with his support for armed protesters in the Michigan statehouse, who were protesting guidelines set by his own scientists. This plays into the fourth crisis cited by RSF, a Crisis of Trust toward journalists worldwide.
Throughout the world, primed by social media and partisan politicians, publics have grown increasingly wary of journalists in general. In the United States, according to a Pew Research Center study, Republicans trust only a handful of news outlets, including Fox News and the talk radio programs of hosts Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. That leaves fact-based media wide open to vicious partisan attacks.
In this dangerous climate, COVID-19 has accelerated an Economic Crisis that was already decimating newspapers, as social media replaced print and ad revenue plummeted. The crisis has destroyed advertising and is accelerating the layoffs and ownership concentration that already threatened journalists’ independence, not just in America, but in Europe and Asia.
It is almost impossible to imagine the media scene one year from now, except to say that the economics will be even more daunting. Yet, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the republic won’t survive without a free press capable of challenging politicians’ lies about a health crisis more dangerous than any in our lifetimes.
The time for figuring out how to save the free press from economic collapse or political assault is now.