The ability of American journalism to present the news free from political intimidation and to hold political leaders accountable for their actions is one of the most important elements of democracy in the United States. We Americans take for granted the media organizations that expose dishonest officials who break the law or abuse the powers of their office. Most people in the world do not have the precious luxury of a free and independent press to protect them.
The first actions by tyrants when they take power are to seize control of the security services and the independent press. Unapproved criticism and uncomfortable facts are not tolerated while corrupt political leaders largely do as they please beyond public view.
Today, autocratic leaders like Vladimir Putin in Russia hold elections to present an impression of democracy, but they use a combination of personal threats, violence, and intimidation to turn the media into obedient tools of public propaganda.
Leaders of some fragile democracies today dominate the press in other ways. Political parties or their sponsors own media outlets directly. In a weak media market, many press organizations rely on government spending for advertising or subsidies to survive. In those cases, the press is self-censored on government corruption or illegal acts. Reporters and editors who violate the restrictions on criticism of the government can lose their jobs or can be punished in other ways. It's a cozy relationship that promotes the agenda of those in power.
The openness of the Internet has taken freedom of information to an astounding level. Putin and others demand control of the Internet in their nations. But Putin has discovered that the free flow of information offers opportunity as well as danger, and his intelligence services have weaponized the Web to influence democratic elections and discredit the democratic process while Russia seeks to compromise officials in the target nations. Americans who rely primarily on Facebook, Twitter and rebroadcasts or material from blogs or websites of unclear origins are exposing themselves to manipulation from illegitimate sources.
Thankfully, the security institutions of the United States have exposed Putin's game. What have been missing are the technical and other measures to adequately defend against Russian attacks on American elections in November and to deter covert Russian strikes in the future.
Law enforcement and the courts are not enough to protect society. The justice system has critical jobs to do to guarantee the rule of law in the United States, but it is not responsible for independently informing the public of government activities and their outcomes and warning the public when government officials misbehave.
Every U.S. president has been unhappy about intrusive, skeptical press coverage of their administration. But Donald Trump takes hostility toward the press beyond even a Nixon-level contempt for factual journalism. His actions toward journalists should set off all the alarms about threats to freedom of the press in the United States.
Trump rants against the U.S. media as "enemies of the people," and he calls the accurate reporting of facts about his administration "fake news." He publicly calls professional journalists "dishonest" to stir up campaign rallies. He denies individual members of the media normal access to his events because they ask uncomfortable questions for him or he doesn't like their organization's coverage.
The administration and many on the political far right deride news organizations with long-standing reputations for honest, straightforward journalism as the "mainstream media." These outlets are mainstream for a reason--a record of independent, professional journalism.
The president's tirades against the press are blurring the lines between news and opinion. The best sources of objective news are the news pages of legitimate newspapers and the news broadcasts of major media outlets with longstanding tradition and reputations for factual reporting and finding the truth. The opinions expressed by these organizations are identified as such and presented on the opinion and editorial pages and by talking heads and their guests on cable TV. The legitimate news tries to present both sides of a contentious fact-based news story. For Trump, that's not good enough. He wants a fawning press to glorify, not challenge, his often false claims.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I aspired as a youth to be a journalist, and I have a degree in journalism from Arkansas State, although I never worked as a journalist and have no relationship with any news organization now. But I remain a news junkie and a voracious consumer of thoughtful commentary.
Personally, I will be the last person to stop my subscription to a printed daily newspaper delivered to my home in Virginia, while I read the Democrat-Gazette and the Jonesboro Sun online.
U.S. news reporting is not always perfect, but legitimate journalism in the United States is an exceptional national asset and a reliable haven in the information chaos of the Internet age. An independent, professional and intrusive press--skeptical, probing, challenging--is the critical line in the defense of democracy, especially when American democracy is under attack by a foreign power.
James W. Pardew is a former U.S. ambassador and career U.S. Army intelligence officer. He served abroad for years as a diplomat and military officer. Pardew is a Jonesboro native who holds a degree in journalism from Arkansas State University.
Editorial on 08/09/2018
Print Headline: Not the enemy