The United States ranks 48th among nations for press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. Because few other countries have the equivalent of our First Amendment, learning that we rank below Botswana and Slovenia may come as a surprise.
Mostly, the organization pins this dismal state of affairs on Trump’s attacks on the news media. It references the White House’s revocation of CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s press card, the president’s “fake news” and “enemy of the people” jibes and his tacit approval of the grisly murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by the government of Saudi Arabia. “At least one White House correspondent has hired private security for fear of their life after receiving death threats, and newsrooms throughout the country have been plagued by bomb threats and were the recipients of other potentially dangerous packages, prompting journalism organizations to reconsider the security of their staffs in a uniquely hostile environment,” says Reporters Without Borders. Cry me a river! I’ve received hundreds of death threats.
Like most other mainstream analyses of the state of press, Reporters Without Borders focuses on how easy it is for large, corporate-owned media conglomerates with establishmentarian political orientations to do their jobs.
Independent journalists, especially those whose politics are left of the Democrats’ or right of the Republicans’, have much bigger problems than deep-pocketed megaconglomerates like CNN.
No consideration of freedom of the press in the U.S. is complete without a hard look at the case of Julian Assange. The founder and publisher of WikiLeaks is rotting in an English prison, awaiting extradition to the United States for possession and dissemination of classified information — exactly what The New York Times did when it published the Pentagon Papers and the Edward Snowden revelations. He is being “treated worse than a murderer, he is isolated, medicated,” says journalist John Pilger, who recently visited him. Incredibly, corporate media is siding with the Trump administration, not merely ignoring Assange but mocking him and accusing him of treason (which is impossible because he’s not American).
Censorship is insidious; readers and viewers can’t know what they’re not told. Almost as sinister as the persecution of Assange is the wholesale erasure of left-wing politics from U.S. news media. Forty-three percent of Americans tell pollsters they want the U.S. to become a socialist country. Thirty-six percent of registered Democrats currently support self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, whose campaign promises closely align with Sanders’.
Watch CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and the other cable news outlets. Once in a very long while, you might catch a token leftist joining a yakfest. You’ll never see a socialist get a gig as a regular contributor, much less be asked to host a show. If you don’t think it’s weird that 43 percent of the country’s population is being censored, I don’t know what to tell you.
Pervasive among both corporate and independent journalists is self-censorship. Apologists say that freedom of the press doesn’t include the right to be published, and that’s true. Because journalists are like everyone else and can’t survive without earning money, however, the real-world practical effect of having to earn a living is that reporters and pundits have to watch what they say lest they become unemployable pariahs like I was after 9/11. “Sorry, man,” an editor I considered a friend told me after I asked him for work at his business magazine. “You’re radioactive.”
The Washington Post and other corporate news companies ridiculed Sanders’ recent assertion that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ ownership of the Post influences its coverage. As Sanders noted, it’s not like Bezos calls Post editors to tell them what to print and what to censor.
Self-censorship is subtle. Post executive editor Marty Baron is technically correct when he retorts that “Jeff Bezos allows our newsroom to operate with full independence.” But he’s dodging the meat of the matter. Baron and other Post editors know who their bosses are: Bezos and, more generally, his allies in the corporate ruling class. No matter how much they protest that they can follow any lead and print anything they want, that knowledge of who butters their bread informs every move they make. It’s why, when the editorial page editor sorts through the day’s nationally syndicated political cartoons, he never ever publishes one from a left-wing political orientation, no matter how well written or well drawn it is. It’s why when they’re hiring new staffers, they never hire a leftie. They’re smart enough not to bite the hand that feeds them. It’s also why the person making that hiring decision is not himself or herself part of the 43 percent.
I’m more audacious. Yet, I too know not to go too far.
I’ve learned that I can draw a cartoon or write a column criticizing “free trade” agreements without fear of getting fired or assassinated. There is also no fear that it will be published by a corporate newspaper, so why bother? Over the long run, I have to give editors material they want to publish; if I send out too much stuff about a verboten topic like free trade, I’ll lose clients.
Forty-eighth? When it comes to press freedom, the U.S. is benefiting from grade inflation.
Rall is a political cartoonist and columnist. Follow him on Twitter @TedRall.