The Committee to Protect Journalists, a group alleging to promote press freedom and the rights of journalists, awarded President Donald Trump the “Overall Achievement in Undermining Global Press Freedom” in its “Press Oppressors” awards this week. The story was giddily retweeted across the liberal Twitterverse, because, one imagines, people actually believe it.
Watching Trump and the media slap fight like a couple of sloshed Real Housewives hasn’t done wonders for the country, granted. But setting aside the melodrama, and the kabuki theater, and the symbiotic relationship between the two, the fact is that self-serving complaints about American press freedoms being in peril are unqualified bunk.
For one thing, the very breadth and intensity of the anti-Trump press illustrates there are few inhibitions or no strictures on their freedom of expression. Trump’s attacks on journalists — some of it brought on by their own shoddy and partisan behavior — are often unseemly and unhealthy, but it hasn’t stopped anyone from engaging, investigating, writing, saying, protesting or sharing their deep thoughts with the entire group.
Every day. All the time.
That’s not to say average Americans don’t have plenty of reasons to be worried about the future of free expression. There are forces gathering that aspire to criminalize dissent and punish Americans for their unpopular opinions. Many of the loudest voices crying out about Trump’s fascism, in fact, either fully support, are complicity silent or rationalize these efforts.
“While previous U.S. presidents have each criticized the press to some degree, they have also made public commitments to uphold its essential role in democracy, at home and abroad,” claims the Committee to Protect Journalists. It’s true, the previous president made many public commitments to upholding the press’ essential role in democracy while he was secretly scouring the phone records of reporters and editors of The Associated Press to uncover leakers. Democrats showed their commitment to a free and open press by sic’ing the Justice Department on a Fox reporter and calling him criminal “co-conspirator” for attempting to solicit classified information as journalists have been doing forever.
If the Trump Administration, which has a bigger leak problem than any in history, engaged in anything resembling this kind of behavior, it would rightly be considered a massive scandal. Every newscast and every front page would lead with it.
But it’s not just about the past. While Trump’s efforts to stop Michael Wolff’s fabulist “Fire and Fury” from being published are silly and counterproductive and sure to fail (update: as is his new lawsuit against Buzzfeed), he is merely accessing the legal rights that all Americans enjoy. In the meantime, Democrats, right now, support new laws that would allow the state to ban political books and documentaries. The Obama years made overturning the First Amendment via the Citizens United a tenent of its party platform. Obama, in perfect syntax, engaged in an act of norm-breaking, called out the Supreme Court publicly for upholding First Amendment. That was rhetoric, too. Few defenders of the press seemed bothered by any of it.
Claiming the president of the United States (Obama or Trump) is “overall” more detrimental to press freedoms than the leaders of Russia, Turkey, Egypt or China not only denigrates those truly fighting for press freedoms in authoritarian nations, it also shows us that you don’t really understand how American rights work to begin with. Because not only is the United States far superior in its embrace of open political discourse than authoritarian states, or Third World states, or (nearly) every state in Middle East, the United States is superior to Western European nations, as well.
Funny how people who think US should be more like Europe go nuts when someone suggests we should have European libel law standards.
— Jonathan H. Adler (@jadler1969) January 9, 2018
There is no country in Europe that boasts as healthy an environment for press freedom or free speech as the United States — and considering the attitude of elites, it’s doubtful they want that dynamic to change. In Europe libel laws are frequently used by the rich and powerful to suppress unfavorable coverage. In England, for example, Trump would likely have been able to quash the Wolff book. In Germany, the state demands that private online outlets govern speech that doesn’t comport with their diktats. In France, the government will decide what real news is. The European Union’s Code of Conduct features an array of demands for the government to police speech, which includes, among other things, online “hate speech” — a perpetually flexible and easily abused phrase. Increasing numbers of Americans, some no doubt worried about Trump fascism, support the implementation of these kinds of laws here.
Rhetoric matters, but it’s not all that matters. To believe press freedom is in imminent danger you have to concentrate solely on Trump’s words rather than what’s actually happening. As David Brooks recently noted, those who do so seem to be “settling into a smug, fairy tale version of reality that filters out discordant information.”
The press is probably safer from government interference (we can talk about mega-corporations instilling speech codes another time) than it has been from 2001-2016. The internet is freer for everyone, including journalists, because of the administration’s deregulatory efforts. Political discourse is in better hands because Neil Gorsuch. And after an eight-year hibernation, the press has rediscovered its purpose as the opposition party.
Enjoy it while you can.