UPDATED: Why U.S. press freedom may not survive 2016
Arrests of prominent journalists, mob hatred at campaign rallies, threats to change libel laws and other press freedoms. If you think 2016 was bad, the war on the 1st Amendment is just beginning.
UPDATE: On Monday afternoon, a wise judge in Morton County, N.D., found no merit in the "rioting" charge against Amy Goodman. That's great news for her and for the 1st Amendment, and it at least partially restores some of your faith in truth, justice, the American way, etc., etc. But storm clouds still remain -- here's my original post:
One of the feel-good stories that Americans like to tell ourselves is that our freedom of the press (or media), as enshrined in the 1st Amendment, is at the top of the list of things that make us an exceptional nation. But as one of our country's Nobel-winning authors (no, not that one!) famously expressed it....yes, isn't it pretty to think so.
The reality is much cruder than we care to admit. The group Reporters Without Borders ranks the United States as a mediocre 41st out of 180 nations for press freedom, behind not just the usual suspects (Canada, the Scandinavian countries) but places like Ghana and Chile. That's not surprising in a country that honors its government whistleblowers by indicting them or throwing them into jail and where reporters covering Black Lives Matter-style protests have found themselves detained for no good reason. And this was all before Peak Donald Trump.
The vision of Trump rallies today -- where journalists are caged like zoo animals and heaped with scorn and violent threats both from the candidate and his supporters, in a 21st Century update on Orwell's "two minutes hate" -- and a Trump presidency tomorrow, where libel laws are stripped bare and critical news organizations are harassed in a manner that would have made Richard Nixon blush, has radically changed the conversation. Suddenly, some Americans are wondering: Are we stepping onto a slippery slope of eroding press freedom?
Slippery slope? The truth is that we're already rapidly sliding into that glacial abyss. Let's visit the front lines -- and arguably the grim roadmap for what could happen to journalism beyond the 2016 election:
In this remote prairie state, local prosecutors are already shredding the 1st Amendment in their desperate efforts to quell a citizen uprising by Native American tribes and environmentalists determined to block the flow of oil across sacred and ecologically fragile lands through the planned Dakota Access pipeline.
As the dramatic protests accelerated in early September, they were completely ignored by the national media -- with one exception: the veteran, award-winning liberal journalist Amy Goodman of the TV and radio program Democracy Now. Goodman was there to capture private security guards siccing attack dogs on Native American protesters, and her footage elevated the pipeline protest into the American agenda. Indeed, the Obama administration ordered a temporary halt to some pipeline work after her report.
Six days later and no longer in North Dakota, Goodman was shocked to receive a warrant for her arrest, charging her with a misdemeanor -- initially with trespassing, but when authorities couldn't prove she'd been warned about trespassing, the charge was changed to "rioting." And how exactly did Amy Goodman "riot"? Essentially by reporting. Prosecutors wanted Goodman arrested because they didn't like her journalism.
"She's a protester, basically," prosecutor Ladd Erickson told the local Grand Forks Herald. "Everything she reported on was from the position of justifying the protest actions." He went even further in comments to the Bismark Tribune. "I think she put together a piece to influence the world on her agenda, basically. That's fine, but it doesn't immunize her from the laws of her state."
Actually, Goodman is totally immunized from what is happening here. Indeed, when the Bill of Rights was drafted in 1789, partisan opinion journalism of the type that Goodman arguably practices today was the only journalism that existed. The 1st Amendment was created to prevent exactly this: The jailing of a writer for his or her political point of view.
It's important to note that North Dakota authorities are clamping down on the 1st Amendment rights of others at the pipeline protests, including filmaker Deia Schlosberg, who faces felony charges and as much as 45 years behind bars and has seen her footage of the protests confiscated. This is about as far from American exceptionalism as one can get. Instead, this is totally banana-republic, petty dictator-type stuff.
And it's not happening in a vacuum. It's happening in the Age of Trump, when you have one of the two major-party candidates for president calling the journalists who cover his campaign "scum" and "lowest people on earth," and the as-much-as 40 percent of the American people backing his campaign are cheering him on. In some cities, riot police are keeping watch over journalists leaving Trump rallies, as partisans jeer, verbally harass and give the middle finger to the press corps. In such a climate, in a state like North Dakota that Trump is expected to carry in November, prosecutors arresting journalists for their views won't get much pushback from the citizenry; they're more likely to reward them with their votes in a future election.
This is our dystopian future -- and it gets worse if Trump defies the polls and wins on Nov. 8. The Donald has pledged to work with a Republican Congress to make it easier to destroy news organizations by suing them -- just like his billionaire backer Peter Thiel already accomplished by funding legal action against Gawker. He's made it clear he'll take governmental actions against critical news orgs like the Washington Post, very much in the style of "strongmen" like Vladimir Putin or the late Hugo Chavez. And God only knows what else his most goonish supporters might try.
Beyond the Trump rallies, the raw anger and hatred toward journalists -- always present, but whipped into a frenzy by the GOP nominee and his minions -- is at a place that I've never seen in 35 years in journalism. Consider the Arizona Republic, which rejected Trump to endorse a Democrat for the first time in 125 years, and received a slew of threats like "WE WILL BURN YOU DOWN" and saw people spit in the face of its young door-to-door subscription sellers. Consider my friends and colleague here at the Daily News, Helen Ubinas, who wrote about ordering a cheesesteak at Geno's in Spanish and unleashed a gooey torrent of hateful comments and emails.
You pray that no one will get hurt in this "brave" new world. I'm not optimistic. No wonder that the Committee to Protect Journalists, which has had a long record of avoiding election politics, wrote in a powerful statement last week that "a Trump presidency represents a threat to press freedom unknown in modern history."
Look, I understand what many of you are saying or thinking at this point. If American journalism is the object of hatred, we've brought this on ourselves. I can't speak for all of my colleagues, but personally I listen to your complaints and understand where you're coming from. The reason I wanted to become a blogger and experiment with different types of writing 12 years ago was because I, too, was deeply unhappy with the state of American journalism -- feeling that too much deference to authority had enabled the great mistake of the Iraq War. Today, I'm reading the Wikileaks-hacked Hillary Clinton campaign emails, and I still see too many instances of journalists who bow down to the power elites instead of challenging them. Freedom of the press is a right, but respect for journalism must be earned, every day.
But the American media is not a monolith, nor was it ever meant to be. At the risk of sounding like Charles Dickens, 2016 has seen some of the worst political journalism ever, and some of the best. The hours and hours of free media time that the cable TV networks afforded Trump and his cast of carnival barkers -- all in the name of high ratings and what-will-he-say-next reality-show entertainment values -- will be long remembered as a low moment in U.S. history. But at that same moment, journalists like David Fahrenthold, Susanne Craig or David Sirota were working 16-hour days to tell the public what it needed to know about Trump's taxes or the dealngs of the Clinton Foundation.
Today, a lot of the anti-media fervor is about open bias against Trump. And you know what...in a sense, the critics are right. Trump's divisive campaign has shattered the old notions -- clung to for too long, by too many -- of media objectivity. And you know what: It's about damn time. Journalism can't exist without a functioning democracy...and vice versa. In promising his supporters that the election results will be "rigged," in threatening to jail his opponent if he wins, in vowing to violate the U.S. Constitution with a religious test for immigrants, by expanding the crime of torture and in using the power of the White House to destroy press critics, Trump has posed the greatest threat to the American way of life since the Civil War. For journalists to sound the alarm about this threat is not just a good idea -- it's essential. And to not to so would be to voluntarily surrender as the values we stand for are crushed.
But this boldness has consequences. Both journalists and the public need to realize that even if Trump loses three weeks from now, press freedom in the United States will almost certainly never be the same. Skepticism about the media has flourished since the end of the 1960s, but, as of this election, millions of Americans -- maybe 30 percent of the voting public, maybe more -- have reached a frenzied state of media hatred from which there is no turning back. And they have chosen, willingly, to live their political lives in a fact-free zone. They should not be catered to.
In the parts of America where this hatred rules, you might see violence, but you definitely will see more restrictions on where journalists can go and what we can write about. The outrageous criminal charges against Amy Goodman and Deia Schlosberg are not the anomaly they might now appear to be. They are rather a template for press relations, post 2016. It's not hard to imagine a time in the near future when ranking 41st in world press freedom will be recalled as "the good old days."
This is quickly becoming a dangerous time, in a way that most American journalists are not accustomed to. Yet in a bizarre way the danger is also liberating. The tumultuous year of 2016 should have made clear to journalists the utter pointlessness of offering a phony kind of "balance" to consumers who didn't even believe in basic science, denied proven facts and now want to obliterate the 1st Amendment.
All that remains is the only thing that should have mattered to American journalists in the first place: The truth. It's a cliche to say that the truth shall set you free. But the crazy thing we may learn after 2016 is that no truth is more free than the one that might land you in jail.