Independent media central to the success of US society
It is no coincidence that both a Hollywood movie and a well-publicized HBO documentary have recently been produced on Ben Bradlee, the editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991. Bradlee was a great proponent of the press and of investigative journalism, becoming a national figure for his refusal to give into government pressure during the Watergate scandal. As the White House and the media seem to now be consistently at loggerheads, the freedom of the press and its ability to go about its business without hindrance are central to debates taking place.
Former President Barack Obama recently highlighted this in a speech to students, saying: “The biggest threat to our democracy…it’s not one individual, it’s apathy, it’s indifference. It’s us not doing what we’re supposed to do.” In raising awareness about this issue, the former president, like many others, is making a stand about the importance of high-quality, relentless journalism to American society.
Donald Trump came to office on a ticket to reconfigure US society as a non-establishment candidate, free from the shackles of any special interest group. He has raised some very valid concerns in regards to the fact that a handful of billionaires own America’s main media outlets, compromising the objectivity of their news. There is no doubt that, with the growth of rapid, online news sources, issues have arisen with regards to the quality of the news. However, in branding whole networks as “fake,” the president has brought into question the entire journalistic profession and indeed helped develop a disregard for the media that is troublesome. In a recent statement, freedom of expression experts David Kaye and Edison Lanza said: “These attacks run counter to the country’s obligations to respect press freedom,” and are “designed to undermine confidence in reporting and raise doubts about verifiable facts.”
While Obama has become more vocal in his support of the press, he has conveniently skirted the fact that his own administration carried out surveillance on reporters.
Zaid M. Belbagi
In any mature society, the press has a role to report the news but also to hold the government to account. At previous moments in American history when the executive has attempted to weigh heavily on the press to avoid scrutiny, its efforts have been curtailed by the country’s leading outlets. In Bradlee’s case, in 1971, The Washington Post successfully challenged the government over the right to publish the Pentagon Papers. A year later, he backed reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they probed the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters that was at the center of the Watergate scandal. In investigating government policy that concerned the deaths of thousands of American servicemen and indeed pursuing the government over an array of clandestine and illegal activities undertaken by members of the Nixon administration, the press played a vital role.
With five different people having served as White House communications director and two as press secretary only 18 months into the Trump administration, there is something very wrong with how the press is being dealt with. The overtly combative approach of the administration has resulted in a relationship that is unhealthy both for the White House and the media at large. Outside experts are not mistaken when they comment on such an environment as being dangerous for journalists. The constant derision and vilification of the press for being unpatriotic had a part to play in the chilling murder of five journalists in their newsroom in Maryland in June. For both the government and the media to be able to go about their work, a more positive relationship must be sought, with each party respectful of the role of the other.
Obama, among others, has raised a valid point in that the US must continue to uphold freedom in the context of increasing autocracy worldwide. To many, the strength of American values has historically been more critical to US global leadership than hard power. The First Amendment of the US Constitution, for example, prevents Congress from making any law that abridges the freedom of the press. If any administration is seen to be acting against such norms, then the entire system risks being undermined.
It is therefore worth noting that issues with press freedom have existed for decades and, while Obama has become more vocal in his support of the press, he has conveniently skirted the fact that his own administration carried out surveillance on reporters. His administration used the Espionage Act to go after whistleblowers more than any of the previous administrations combined. In 2010, the Obama Department of Justice went so far as to begin secret surveillance of James Rosen, Fox News’ then-chief Washington correspondent, collecting his emails and phone records — even including his parents’ phone.
Given the very clear trend of government seeking to limit scrutiny by the press, it is important that the current administration overhauls its policy and seeks to repair relationships with the media. The Committee to Protect Journalists and similar organizations are correct in seeking freedom for the press, but the media must also report responsibly and realize that the harm sensationalism does to its reputation outweighs any short-term gains it may bring.
The media is central to the success of American society and, to quote Thomas Jefferson, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).