Seven ways to restore our press freedoms before we end up with another authoritarian dictator
Donald Trump's time in office was defined by death, destruction, disarray, and multiple attacks on democracy. Yet we must never forget that Trump's legacy also includes an evil milestone, reached in 2018, when the United States, for the first time ever, ranked among the top five deadliest countries for journalists. For context, other "top" nations were Afghanistan, Syria, Mexico, India, and Yemen. This was the same year that Trump first called the press "the enemy of the people."
Though 2020 and the Trump administration are in our rearview mirror, the situation has gotten even more dire. Disturbingly, the number of journalists killed worldwide in 2020 doubled from 2019. We have to remember that a free press was viewed as so important to our foundational democracy, it was the only profession the Founding Fathers named in our Constitution. It's the best, last hope against tyranny, which is exactly why authoritarians hate it so much. Trump's purposeful attacks on the media not only encouraged violence against journalists in this country, but gave regimes elsewhere a blueprint to crack down on their own press. Dictators, from Bashir-Al Assad to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, used the Trumpian term "fake news" to justify their own violent attacks on journalists who attempted to hold them accountable. The junta in Myanmar is using a similar argument to justify shutting down internet access amidst a coup.
There were so many abuses of power the past few years, Trump's attacks against the media became background noise. After his failed presidency came to its end, CNN tried to chronicle Trump's most egregious acts, and his attacks on the press didn't even warrant a mention. Although Trump left many messes that need to be cleaned up, our First Amendment protections must be given a high priority. Fortunately, there's plenty of things that President Joe Biden, and everyone, can do to help to strengthen those protections. It's vital for the next time we face an authoritarian leader who may have a shred more competence than Trump.
In hindsight, of course, none of this should have come as a surprise. Trump has a long history of expressing displeasure at unflattering stories about him, though his bruised ego took a particularly dark turn once he entered politics. Once his campaign events devolved into hate rallies, the press became a frequent target of his ire. Security staff usually confined the press into closed pens at the back of the crowds, and the penalty for stepping out of these pens was severe. In February 2016, photographer Christopher Morris, from TIME magazine, stepped out of the pen to snap some pictures of protesters at a Virginia Trump rally. He was immediately "choke-slammed" to the ground by William Figueroa, a member of Trump's Secret Service detail. After a nearly two-year probe, Figueroa was, tellingly, found to be justified in his use of force.
At his seemingly weekly rallies, Trump would often point to the press and insult them, a habit cemented after his infamous impersonation of Serge Kovelski, a disabled New York Times reporter. At a rally in New Hampshire in 2015, Trump called the press "scum," "horrible people," and "illegitimate."
Trump pulled White House press credentials and threatened to "challenge" licenses with the FCC in response to coverage he perceived as unflattering. In 2017, then-White House chief strategist (and recent recipient of a Trump pardon) Steve Bannon started to refer to the press as the "opposition party." Soon afterwards, Trump doubled down on messaging that the press was the enemy.
Joseph Goebbels, of course, famously used the term "enemy of the people" to refer to the Jewish people in Germany, and Adolf Hitler used it to refer to the Lügenpresse—the "lying press." Even more shockingly, and with no self-awareness, Trump supporters adopted this term.
Once in office, Trump continued attacking the media. He even participated in a cover-up of the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by blocking any effort from Congress to hold Prince Mohammed bin Salman accountable. He literally bragged about doing it.Five employees of the Capital Gazette newspaper were murdered by a gunman in their newsroom in Annapolis, MD. The surviving staff wrote "We won't forget being called an enemy of the people."
Trump's hatred for the press grew noticeably more intense during his term, from urging the jailing of journalists in his first year to, by year three, being comfortable with calling for the execution of journalists who weren't nice to him.
Rather than reining in Trump's demonic and anti-American impulses, the GOP machine actively encouraged him. Fox News parroted his remarks constantly without pushback. The network even leaned on "The Knife," a discredited media company, to "prove" bias in the media's coverage of Trump. The Knife was created by the NXIVM sex trafficking cult for the sole purpose of defending itself from bad press.
By mid-2020, even The Federalist agreed with Trump that the media was "the enemy of the people." Republican politicians had no trouble with any of this, as they found it useful to claim "Fake News" when they were being investigated. These right-wing outlets helped Trump radicalize many Americans against the mainstream press.
It's no wonder that the media was one of the many targets by the Trump mob on Insurrection Day.
It wasn't until after the insurrection attempt that some right-wing outlets, along with social media companies, corporations, and conservative politicians, finally realized that they had let things go too far.
Since Trump was defeated, I no longer hear as much tolerance on the air for election conspiracy theories, nor attacks against honest journalism as "Fake News." (Sucks to be Lou Dobbs right now.) I'm sure that will change in a few weeks, but for now, it's been a nice change of pace. Joe Biden should seize this moment, as we have several opportunities to strengthen one of our nation's most valuable freedoms. For the protection of the free press, and the journalists who put their lives on the line, I would like to suggest several actions Democrats at all levels need to fight for.
Protections for whistleblowers
Whistleblowers are brave souls who risk everything to disclose wrongdoings that have a direct impact on the public, such as corruption or fraud. When they choose to disclose information to the media, journalists must be able to ensure their sources are protected as they expose the truth. Safe whistleblowing is the key to preserving press freedom; Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has been fighting to protect confidential sources since 1970.
Unfortunately, current laws only prevent some federal officials from revealing a whistleblower's identity, and there are no penalties for violations. The Enhancing Protections for Whistleblower Anonymity Act, sponsored by Rep. Eric Swalwell in May 2020, would impose criminal penalties on any federal official who knowingly communicates the identity of a whistleblower, or information which would reveal such a person's identity, except to other government officials where permitted by law. The bill also would let whistleblowers whose identities are illegally disclosed to sue for injunctive relief or monetary damages. Sen. Rand Paul purposefully and illegally named the intelligence official who raised the alarm about Trump's attempted blackmail of Ukraine; to this day, he has not suffered any consequences for his actions.
Promote local media, and invest in public media
In 2008, President Barack Obama discussed his practice of visiting very small towns in Illinois, where he would be written about in the local papers. The newspaper editors were very conservative, but they would meet with him and treat him fairly. Now, many of those papers are gone, and the vacuum has been filled with sensational misinformation espoused through right-wing radio, Fox News, and the ultra right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group. The Biden administration will have opportunities to implement policies aimed at staunching the bleeding in local news, as well as mitigating much of the hyper-partisanship that corrupts our current information channels.
They are off to a great start, with Kamala Harris giving exclusive interviews to local media outlets in Arizona and West Virginia to promote their big push for COVID relief—and to apply local pressure to two reluctant Democratic Senators. I'm looking forward to Biden appointing an FCC chair who puts the public interest over commercial profit, and increasing financial support for public media.
With a larger government subsidy, public media could play a bigger role in addressing the structural problems with our media system. It's an investment and a guardrail against the free market's failure to support local news. There is already overwhelming bipartisan support to save local media, and public media is still very popular. This is one reason the Trump administration was unsuccessful in its efforts to zero out funding for public media, despite attempting to defund it every year with the federal budget.
Fight misinformation online
Many bad actors exploit the open platforms to plant disinformation, manipulate public opinion, drown out critics, and undermine trust in our democracy. There's no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are a lot of good ideas on how to fight back. We need to pressure tech companies to identify the misinformation through algorithms and crowdsourcing, as well as to demonetize the purveyors of these falsehoods.
The Biden administration needs to treat coordinated disinformation attacks from Russia and Iran as what they are: cyberattacks designed to interfere with a free and fair election. Special task forces should be set up in the appropriate government agencies to guard against these attacks. I made the argument last year, after multiple cyberattacks, that we should heed the military's call for a branch dedicated to fighting the cyber war. Sadly, Trump created the Space Force instead.
There's a careful balance when crafting such legislation, of course; you never want to create an excuse to censor someone. However, there are common sense laws that could help. One is an advertiser verification requirement for election ads on social media. Another is to require all political campaign advertisers to include "paid for by" disclaimers. Most states require these kinds of disclaimers for TV and radio, but not the internet.
Make press freedom a focus of U.S. foreign policy
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has the goal of restoring American leadership with press freedom around the world. We cannot solve complex geopolitical issues without a firm commitment to a free press. For example, if China had allowed its journalists to speak freely, the world might have gotten ahead of the COVID-19 outbreak. Imagine the world if that had been allowed to happen.
The CPJ had several recommendations for President Biden, including the following:
- President Biden should deliver a major speech in support of press freedom. The speech should articulate the importance of the press to support democracy and human rights, honor reporters who have been killed, and outline the role that social media companies should be expected to play.
- Appoint a Special Presidential Envoy for Press Freedom. This would be someone who reports directly to the Secretary of State, and can give high visibility when speaking out about press violations around the world. This office would be a voice for global media organizations facing threats, and journalists wrongfully imprisoned. The Envoy and their office would work to free journalists, attend trials, and support legislative efforts that enhance press freedom.
- Ensure the independence of government-funded media. The U.S. government-funded media—including Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty—have been a source of credible news and information for people around the world for generations. Trump nearly destroyed that, with blatant political picks that sought to push his selfish agenda. We must ensure that never happens again.
Establish Press Freedom Day
Every Nov.11, I am usually showered in thanks for Veteran's Day. The gratitude is greatly appreciated; wouldn't it be nice to honor the Fourth Estate and the guardians of the First Amendment? The United Nations already celebrates World Press Freedom Day every May 3, in support of a strong, free competitive press in every nation. Perhaps Biden could declare a day here in the U.S. to thank the reporters, journalists, photographers, and broadcasters who put their lives on the line everyday to bring us the truth. America shouldn't need a reminder of the importance of the free and fair media in our lives, but in this day and age, we do.
Build a Fallen Journalist Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The words "Murder the media" were written on the Capitol doors by Trump's mob. Members of the media were threatened, assaulted, and their equipment destroyed; a noose was left hanging above the destroyed gear.
I almost threw up watching those clips. This is the nation that, again, specifically enshrined the principle of a free press into the First Amendment of the Constitution. I can't believe we have to argue with fellow citizens for the importance of an independent media here in U.S.
I strongly support a 2019 bill that proposes a national monument in Washington, D.C. to honor fallen journalists killed in the line of duty. You can see a list of the bipartisan bill's sponsors here. Both New Hampshire senators sponsored the bill, noting that New Hampshire resident James Foley was one of the many journalists who deserved to be honored. He bravely reported what was happening in Northern Syria, and became the first American to be kidnapped and beheaded by ISIS.
Legislation allowing for the memorial to be built in Washington, D.C. finally passed. Now the foundation overseeing the project is collecting donations to make it a reality.
Bring back the Fairness Doctrine
The Fairness Doctrine was in place for decades. It simply required broadcasters to devote some time to matters of public interest, and to allow contrasting views. There are a lot of misperceptions surrounding the Fairness Doctrine, some of them intentionally cultivated. It never stifled any talk show hosts or viewpoints; it just prohibited stations from broadcasting one single viewpoint every day. Ronald Reagan had it eliminated in 1987, and the effects were instantaneous.
Right-wing extremists like Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes became media titans. There were suddenly entire stations across the U.S. devoted completely to conservative causes. Thousands of hours of right-wing propaganda attacking immigrants, minorities, the LGBTQ community, those fighting against climate change, and the social safety net … with zero competing perspectives. No wonder people got brainwashed.
In 2004, Sinclair Broadcast Group planned to force its 62 stations at the time to air a blatant anti-John Kerry documentary. A massive sponsor boycott reversed their plans in that instance, but Sinclair has since been successful forcing stations to run conservative programs and "must run" speeches espousing right-wing talking points.
Restoring the Fairness Doctrine would require stations to, at some point, give the other side of the story. It's not a panacea for everything, but restoring it would curb the worst abuses and might help keep people from turning into zombies.
Teach Media Literacy in Schools
As part of an English curriculum in middle school many, many years ago, I remember tests that with multiple headlines. The student's job was to identify the positive headlines, the negative headlines, and the neutral headlines. For me, this assessment was incredibly easy. Yet I remember some of my classmates struggling with this; I wonder how many of them ended up on Parler before it was shut down.
I cringe when my coworkers tell me that I need to get off mainstream media and follow the "truth." According to them, that "truth" can only be found at OANN or Newsmax. I always challenge them to find one negative article about Donald Trump on those sites, or one positive article on any Democrat. I try to make a point that they need to recognize agendas. Believe it or not, most of them react positively to this, since their whole belief system is centered around not being "sheep."
Media Literacy Now is leading the grassroots movement to teach critical thinking skills for students around all types of media. The New York Times profiled the organization in a story featuring a fed-up teacher in Atlanta, whose students constantly shared sensational, made-up headlines on social media. Teaching media literacy skills to teenagers and younger students can protect readers and listeners from misinformation, just as teaching good hygiene can reduce disease. A RAND report last year said research showed signs that media literacy increases "resiliency to disinformation." Media literacy is likely the best tool we have in combating the current crisis.
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota introduced a bill last year, calling for $20 million to fund media literacy education. Even without legislation, teachers can incorporate media literacy concepts into existing classes, like my teachers did so long ago. There are many resources to serve that goal. I never knew, before middle school, that bias even existed in newspapers or T.V. Now it's painfully obvious. I only wish many of my friends and co-workers had been in that class with me.
Everything I've outlined here will require a commitment—from the government, from schools, from tech companies, and yes, from regular citizens. Yet it's a commitment worth making. There are many powerful people who don't want a free and fair press; we must be as dedicated to protecting it as they are with destroying it.