2018: The year ahead for press freedom

I like to think I’m an optimist by nature, so it pains me greatly to predict that the nearly unprecedented attacks on press freedom we experienced in 2017 will continue for at least the next year in the United States.
One need only look at the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, the archive of record for threats to press freedom in our country, to see the what the almost complete breakdown of civil discourse, particularly as it relates to discussions about the veracity of news reports produced by responsible journalists, portends for our future as proud members of the Fourth Estate.
The Tracker, of which RTDNA and its Voice of the First Amendment Task Force are founding partners, shows that more than three dozen journalists were physically assaulted during the year that just concluded. More than 30 journalists were arrested just for performing their Constitutionally-guaranteed duty to seek and report the truth.
What the Tracker does not count, however, is the unknown number of cases where courts, and local, state and federal bureaucrats, obstruct journalists by stalling or denying access to proceedings and records. And by the way, the people who are harmed by such obstruction are not the journalists involved; they are the members of the public those journalists are trying to serve.
In late December, we spoke out about three of those cases, in which courts in two states had issued unconstitutional prior restraint orders prohibiting the publication of information legally obtained by reporters. The third case involved a state supreme court that refused to permit the public release of important documents in an unsolved murder case in which eight relatives were killed.
In October, we protested when the judicial circuit in the Idaho panhandle engaged in a systemic denial of broadcast and digital journalists’ requests to record high-interest criminal trials.
In June, we helped a television station in Fort Myers, Florida, defend itself against a defamation suit filed by a local prosecutor who said he sued because an investigative report left him with “hurt feelings.” Sadly, late in the fall that prosecutor doubled down and added “reckless disregard for the truth” allegations to his lawsuit, possibly subjecting the station to harsh punitive damages.
Even more serious, the nation’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has repeatedly declined to assure lawmakers and the public that his Justice Department won’t target journalists while investigating the sources of leaks of classified information.
But let’s talk more about what the Tracker does document. Of the more three dozen journalists physically assaulted in the U.S. during 2017, six were attacked by demonstrators and counter protestors during August racial upheaval in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Some of the ten journalists arrested during several rounds of civil unrest in St. Louis in September and October were assaulted by police. It took a federal court injunction to stop St. Louis police from “punishing” protestors and journalists by, among other things, pepper spraying them in the face after they had been arrested and could not pose any physical threat to officers or others.
At least two of the assaulted reporters were attacked by politicians, most infamously Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte, who pleaded guilty to assault charges but won his election anyway and now serves in the U.S. House of Representatives.
I could go on. But it is difficult not to see a direct cause-and-effect relationship between these cases of obstruction, assault and arrest and the near-constant demonization of the mainstream news media by the president of the United States and people who share his view that journalists fabricate “fake news” about him and the political and ideological agenda he promotes.
And there is no reason to believe that the war on responsible journalism, which is led by a commander in chief sitting in the White House and fought by an army of like-minded supporters who either don’t like the news media or don’t understand why the First Amendment’s press freedom protections are essential to their daily lives, will cease acting out in increasingly harsh ways.
As of this writing, a t-shirt reading “ROPE. TREE. JOURNALIST. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED” was still available on at least one e-commerce platform, nearly a month after RTDNA compelled Walmart.com, Amazon.com, eBay.com and several smaller retailers to stop selling apparel and other tchotchkes openly advocating the lynching of journalists.
There has been an upside to all of this. Reporters and photojournalists throughout the land are heeding the advice that I and others have been offering during these troubling times: The only antidote to attacks on journalism is more and better journalism.
We see it virtually every day in Washington, D.C. and in local communities across the country. Reporters are regularly committing what I call “flagrant acts of responsible journalism,” exposing corruption and shining lights on problems that would otherwise go unnoticed, their reports often serving as catalysts for positive change.
During times of great disaster, we have seen reporters and photojournalists put their duties as citizens above their duties as journalists not only to save lives by providing critical public safety information but to save lives physically by braving raging floodwaters to pull people to safety. A local Houston reporter helped a woman deliver her new son.
We have seen newsrooms redouble efforts to build trust with the communities they serve, some by participating in the Trusting News project, of which RTDNA is a partner. Building that trust will be a long process, not likely fully accomplished in 2018, and will require newsrooms everywhere to self-enforce consistent transparency and accountability, as advocated in our Code of Ethics.
We have also seen, and will continue to see, what some call “accountability reporting,” where local news organizations collaborate to produce high-quality, old-fashioned watchdog journalism in a completely new way.
Still, I am pessimistic that the vitriol hurled at journalists in 2017 will ease in 2018. After all, that damnable t-shirt is still for sale, and campaign consultants have already advised some midterm congressional and local candidates to attack the media at every turn because it worked so well for candidate Trump in 2016.
I ask – no, implore – journalists not to back down. Not to give up. Not to let those who attempt to keep secret public information intimidate you. Watch your backs, to be sure. But don’t stop.
I have noted often during the past year that never in our nation’s modern history have responsible journalists faced such high levels of open disdain and hostility, and I sincerely believe that to be true.
What I know to be true is that never in our nation’s modern history has it been more important to have a robust press that holds the powerful – along the entire length of the ideological and political spectrum – accountable.
Happy New Year.