Three reasons to cheer for press freedom this Thanksgiving | Trudy Rubin
Despite Trump's indifference to Jamal Khashoggi's murder and his attacks on U.S. media, we should still be grateful.
Three things happened this Thanksgiving week that made me thankful to be an American journalist — even as President Trump continues his war on the press.
First, the Trump administration was forced by a federal judge to restore the White House press credentials it revoked from CNN correspondent Jim Acosta for specious reasons.
Second, the president was sharply rebuked by both GOP and (newly empowered) Democratic legislators for his shameful defense of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), which ignored the CIA's conclusion that the prince ordered the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Finally, the Kremlin used a cowed court system to crush the New Times, the last independent news magazine in Moscow, reminding us of what happens to investigative media in countries that lack checks and balances.
To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, we have a free press if we can keep it — and can curb a president who wishes he could silence the critical press.
The punishment of Acosta was part of the president's battle against the "enemies of the people" – a Stalinesque label he confers on journalists who challenge his lies and conspiracy theories. The battle will continue.
Trump's response to the Khashoggi murder reveals his affection for autocrats who tolerate, or order, the killing of critics. There is no way two planes containing a 15-man hit team full of top aides to MBS could have been dispatched to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul without the Crown Prince's knowledge.
Yet, in a presidential statement labelled "Standing with Saudi Arabia" Trump sloughed off the murder. Moreover, Trump's claims that the Saudis are a security bulwark against Iran and a source of $450 billion in investments in the USA are gross exaggerations. Almost none of the defense contracts Trump bragged about have materialized.
And every foreign venture MBS has tried has turned sour, including the endless war in Yemen. He has been of little help in pushing back Iran or helping Trump concoct his long-awaited deal for Palestinian-Israeli peace.
So why won't Trump pressure the Saudis? Is it because his son-in-law Jared Kushner is buddies with MBS?
Whatever the reason, the president's support for the Crown Prince sends a signal he's indifferent to murders of journalists by autocrats he favors. Indeed, Trump has repeatedly defended Vladimir Putin when queried about the dozens of murdered Russian journalists during Putin's presidency.
Other autocrats get the message: Don't expect any U.S. pushback if you snuff out pesky journalists; the leader of the free world doesn't give a damn about freedom of the press.
Yet, to understand how privileged American journalists still are, you need only pay attention to Kremlin efforts week to silence New Times, the last Russian news magazine that doggedly critiqued the Kremlin.
Russian officials have long harassed New Times' indomitable editor Yevgenia Albats, with whom I shared an office as an exchange journalist in 1990. Albats was the first writer-in-residence for a short spell at University of Pennsylvania's Perry World House last year in a program for journalists under threat.
And the threats were blatant: A bomb was placed under her car hood several years ago. Advertisers, printers, and distributors were scared away, forcing New Times to switch to a digital-only format. "We are too political and toxic," Albats told me by Skype from Moscow. "To give us money is to announce your disloyalty to Putin himself."
This week, a Russian appeals court confirmed a previous order for New Times to pay more than 22 million rubles (nearly $330,000) on specious charges that the paper had failed to report foreign funding. The original court order was issued three days after Albats did a radio interview with Alexei Navalny, the most prominent Russian opposition leader, who is a thorn in Putin's side.
Amazingly, after Albats announced her plight, small donations poured in from all over Russia, raising $380,000 in several days, enough to pay the fine and keep the magazine going for the short term.
When we spoke, however, Albats expressed sharp disappointment at Trump's treatment of the U.S. press, and his indifference to repression of journalists elsewhere. "We looked up to the USA as some kind of model," she said. "Now, no longer. It is very frightening to see what we saw with Acosta. And calling journalists 'enemies of the people' is very disturbing."
But she added, in reference to Acosta: "I cannot even imagine someone who went that hard against Putin and would regain access to the Kremlin. That suggests you [American journalists] are still able to fight back."
So this Thanksgiving, I am thankful that we Americans still fight back with the help of (so far) independent courts. I am thankful that a majority of Americans still believe in a free press, despite the plethora of conspiracy websites that Trump admires.
Yet, at a time when the U.S. president excuses foreign leaders who hate journalists and shows no appreciation for a free press, we must take to heart Albats' final warning: "It is important for you to realize that freedom is very easy to lose."