Another Press Freedom Day comes and goes in a world where the media is ever less free: Neil Macdonald
The Western press in general, and the American press in particular, is now mortally endangered
It was World Press Freedom Day this past week, a time for Trump nation and its authoritarian allies to pull some corks and generally celebrate the opposite.
They haven't been so happy in ages; the last several decades have been discouraging for them – there's been just too damned much freedom of the press.
In America, journalists enjoy unparalleled constitutional protection.
In no other country do journalists so regularly expose malfeasance at the highest levels, even in the sacred area of national security.
Free press triumphs
Thanks to a free press, we know about the legal excesses of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, the venality of Bill Clinton, and of Donald Trump's tax avoidance and false claims of charitable giving, not to mention his declared taste for "grabbing women by the pussy" when the mood strikes.
The CIA would probably still be in the torture business were it not for good journalism.
Even when various American media outlets cooperated with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, revealing to Americans the shocking extent of their own security state's surveillance, the government's response was to change the law, not censor the stories or imprison the journalists, which would have been the reflex in most countries.
Largely, modern America has abided by a bargain unheard of in history: the government does its best to keep information secret, but stays its whip hand when news organizations thwart those efforts.
It is not even debatable that the arrangement has benefited democracy. Deep Throat, in fact, remains a cultural hero.
Nonetheless, the Western press in general, and the American press in particular, is now mortally endangered.
Market forces no one expected even a generation ago have settled on news organizations like radioactive ash. Newspapers are failing and disappearing, starved of advertising revenue and eaten alive by free social media.
Credentialed, properly researched journalism is being displaced by free internet noise, littered with falsehoods and tailored to satisfyingly reinforce the reader's assumptions.
To most of us, it's frightening. But to the jackals of authoritarianism, it is a joyful thing, and they're piling on.
President Donald Trump, who despises the mainstream media for documenting his serial lying, and relishes the word "failing," rose to power in part by making the media a public enemy.
At his rallies, he used his adoring supporters like a pack of hounds, pointing at reporters in attendance, denouncing them as "enemies of the people," then smiling at the waves of partisan hatred from the crowds.
The failing <a href="https://twitter.com/nytimes">@nytimes</a> does major FAKE NEWS China story saying "Mr.Xi has not spoken to Mr. Trump since Nov.14." We spoke at length yesterday!—@realDonaldTrump
Stung by diligent media fact-checking, he promised while campaigning to change America's libel laws — make it easier to get the sons-of-bitches.
That, of course, would require altering the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, with its guarantee of press freedom — something Trump's chief of staff says is now actually under consideration.
It's instructive to watch the recent exchange in the Oval Office between Trump and John Dickerson, anchor of the venerable CBS program Face the Nation, who had the nerve recently to ask Trump about his patently false claim that Barack Obama was a "bad and sick" president who had "wiretapped" Trump and his eponymous New York skyscraper.
"Do you stand by those claims?" asked Dickerson, mildly.
"I can have my opinions, you can have your opinions."
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When Dickerson pushed it, pointing out that Trump's opinions are the opinions of the president of the United States, Trump angrily responded "that's enough," and abruptly began examining papers at his desk, ostentatiously ignoring Dickerson as the cameras kept rolling.
The interview was over, and the message was clear: I'm president, and this status quo of questioning authority is damned nonsense.
It's a safe bet Trump envies the legal cudgels enjoyed by other presidents he admires, people like Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Heaven help any reporter who shows that sort of insolence to them.
In fact, were it not for the existence of the U.S. Constitution, Trump would almost certainly now be known as a "strongman."
Thankfully, amending the First Amendment is practically impossible, even for Trump Nation. His devotees simply don't represent a large enough majority in a large enough majority of states.
But a president is extraordinarily powerful. Trump can bring other tools to bear.
Hunting leakers and whistleblowers
He can make greater use of the weapons used by Barack Obama in hunting government leakers and whistleblowers; Obama's justice department secretly seized the phone records of the Associated Press, and used the Espionage Act to go after the emails of a New York Times reporter.
As that newspaper put it in an editorial: "If Donald Trump targets journalists, thank Obama."
Journalists in Canada, incidentally, face similar assaults. Police in Quebec have admitted spying on several journalists, tracking their cell phones, and a reporter at Vice has coped with a legal attack by Canada's police and intelligence services, who want his email exchanges with a Calgary man accused of terrorism offences.
For months, a judicial gag order even prevented the journalist from disclosing the government's efforts against him.
Those who despise the mainstream media are of course licking their chops over all this.
They see reporters as subversive; the more dimwitted among them want to see the media crawl before authority, preferably conservative authority, and would support any measures to bring that about.
So, as another Press Freedom Day comes and goes in a world where the media is ever less free, I offer one of my favourite quotes: Thomas More, in the play A Man For All Seasons, replying to his foolish nephew Roper, who pronounced himself willing to "cut down every law in England," if that's what it took to get the devil:
"Oh?" asked More.
"And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man's laws, not God's. And if you cut them down — and you're just the man to do it — d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?"