Press freedom: Is America vulnerable?

February 20, 2017

By Benjamin Mullin

During the campaign and since becoming president, Donald Trump has regularly undermined journalism’s role in healthy democracies.

So says Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, whose organization is gearing up to take on what he calls “a crisis” for press freedom in the United States.

Statements that call legitimate journalism “fake news” and attack the media for political advantage follow the playbook of authoritarian governments and erode cultural norms that protect reporters everywhere, Simon said.

“What is going to be the next step? How are these statements and sentiments going to be transformed into policy?” Simon said. “There’s a lot of things that he can do. And everything he does has an impact not only on journalists in this country and their ability to perform this critical role, but it sets a global standard.”

Simon’s remarks, made during a recent question-and answer session with Poynter, come as the Committee to Protect Journalists is using a recent celebrity boost to address press freedom problems in the United States. Last month, CPJ saw a spike in donations after Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep gave it a shoutout while accepting a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes.

Since then, 4,064 donors have contributed more than $500,000 to CPJ, money the Committee is using to expand its efforts stateside.

Let’s start with the Meryl Streep speech. What has it meant for CPJ?

If you listen to what Meryl Streep was saying, she was really saying that we need to support accountability journalism. So we became the vehicle through which people could express that.

What was really interesting about the donations is that they were small. They were $25, $50, $100. So it really was a game-changer for us. And our visibility was increased, so we’re hearing from foundations and different kinds of support.

So, what are you going to do with all of this support?

We’re expanding our focus, because there’s a crisis in the United States. We need to respond to that. What CPJ is and has been historically is an organization that defends the most vulnerable journalists around the world. And we’ve always seen a role for ourselves in the United States.

Historically, for example, we’ve defended journalists from immigrant news outlets who’ve faced a lot of violence in this country. And we’ve also advocated in the United States when actions taken by the government have a global impact or set a poor global precedent.

What do you mean by “crisis?”

I think there’s a lot of different ways of looking at it. During the campaign, obviously, Trump ran a campaign against the media. He made the media the primary foil, and his attacks on them rallied his base. It was a campaign strategy. And we were very concerned about that, and we were concerned that some of his supporters took this literally, for example.

You guys took the unprecedented step of releasing a statement about his candidacy.

He did things that suggested if he became president, he would not promote First Amendment values on a global basis. And this is critical to the safety of journalists around the world, which is central to our mandate.

What are you going to do about it?

The first thing we need to do — and CPJ is very much a part of this — is we need to build a press freedom coalition in the United States.

We need to bring together legally focused groups like Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, the international groups like Reporters Without Borders, for example. All of the different groups that have part of their work involved with press freedom.

One of the ways we’re doing that is we’re developing a shared documentation project. All of these organizations that document incidents as part of their work — we’re going to share all of that information and collate it in a public-facing way on some sort of website.

This will accomplish two things. One, it will ensure that throughout this administration that the most important press freedom incidents are documented and available and sortable.

It’s also going to help all the organizations that are participating carry out their advocacy. So when you go into a meeting with a Justice Department official or an official from the Department of Homeland Security, you have examples.

There are definitely echoes of authoritarian regimes in Trump’s statements about the press.

I don’t want to go too far down the road of that analogy because the situation in Europe is very different. We have strong institutions, we have a strong media and financial resources.

But absolutely. I call these leaders “democratators.” These are leaders who are elected democratically and use the legitimacy they’ve gained through democratic elections to actually dismantle the institutions that limit their power, including the media. So Putin is very much in this category. Erdogan. Hugo Chavez in Venezula. And we see that process starts with systematic efforts to delegitimize the press.

Why do authoritarian regimes always start with the press?

There’s a number of reasons. One is the press is an institution that operates outside of government control. And if you look at all autocratic systems, they’re about control of information.

At its core, in order to successfully manage a society and put an autocratic framework in place, you need to manage control of information. And it’s very difficult to do when you have an independent and critical media.

The media’s usually vulnerable, too. Often it’s compromised politically because it’s not perceived as a neutral arbiter. There’s not a huge amount of public support. And so you can attack it, and you can erode what public support there is.

Are we beginning to see that here?

We definitely need to be concerned, because the initial strategies are precisely the same. Where I’m not prepared to go is, I don’t think the outcome will be the same, by any stretch of the imagination.

Because the difference is, we have strong, financially stable media. Not without its issues, but no comparison to some of these other countries I’m talking about. We have a First Amendment. We have an independent judiciary. We have a politically engaged citizenry. So there’s huge differences.

Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics. He’s also reported for USA TODAY College and The Sacramento Bee, and he was editor in chief of The Orion, Chico State’s student-run newspaper. An Air Force brat who grew up around Northern California, he’s still adjusting to the Florida sunshine.