How Billionaires, Corporations and Secretive Governments Curtail Press Freedom
James Madison once wrote, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” Nearly two centuries later, the tragic farce that is Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is making a mockery of the right to public information and freedom of the press.
Last week, Trump banned The Post from receiving credentials to cover his campaign events, making the paper the latest media outlet the presumptive Republican nominee has summarily banished. Trump, who has called journalists “sleaze,” “slime,” “scum” and “the most dishonest people ever created by God,” lashed out at The Post for performing the most basic of journalistic duties: accurately reporting his words in the wake of the horrific mass shooting in Orlando. In a statement, Post executive editor Martin Baron describedTrump’s move as “nothing less than a repudiation of the role of a free and independent press.”
There is a certain irony in Trump, who benefited from the obscene amount of coverage lavished on himthroughout the Republican primaries, melting down under even a whiff of media scrutiny. Trump’s dangerous attacks on the press, however, go beyond his name-calling and childish tantrums. If elected, Trump has also pledged to “open up” libel laws in order to facilitate more legal action against journalists, saying, “We’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.” He has made it painfully clear that a Trump administration would have disdain for the First Amendment.
Yet it’s also important to recognize that Trump is only part of a broader threat to press freedom in the United States today.
For example, Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel recently copped to secretly funding professional wrestler Hulk Hogan’s invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against Gawker Media, which outed Thiel almost a decade ago. The case resulted in a $140 million judgment, prompting Gawker to file for bankruptcy and put itself up for sale. Now, the same lawyer who represents Hogan is threatening to bring yet another lawsuit against the company, incredibly, over a blog post about Trump’s hair.
While Thiel, a prominent Trump supporter, has explained his role in the Hogan case by saying that “Gawker has been a singularly terrible bully,” some critics have warned that a billionaire bankrolling legal action sets a dangerous precedent that could discourage critical reporting in the future. “It’s often the scrappy, unconventional news outlets that challenge conventional wisdom, and in doing so, they serve an important purpose,” Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics at the University of Minnesota, told the New York Times. “But they are also very vulnerable financially. It’s expensive to defend suits like this.”
The issue of press freedom is far bigger than Trump and Thiel, The Post and Gawker, or left and right. Press freedom is fundamentally an issue of power — of enabling those who don’t have it to hold those who do accountable — and it transcends partisan politics. There is a long history of struggle between journalists and powerful figures in both parties, which is why the fight to defend the free press should unite Americans of all political stripes.
Indeed, the Obama presidency has been defined in part by the White House’s troubling secrecy and lack of transparency. “On media rights generally, the Obama administration hasn’t walked its talk,” The Post’s Margaret Sullivan recently wrote. “It has set new records for stonewalling or rejecting Freedom of Information requests. And it has used an obscure federal act to prosecute leakers.” Meanwhile, amid 2014’s heated protests in Ferguson, Mo., several reporters were arrested and assaulted by police for committing the apparent crime of journalism.
Despite these threats, the news is not all bleak. Even as Trump and Orlando dominated the headlines, press freedom scored an important victory last week when a U.S. appeals court voted to uphold the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules. A free and open Internet is essential to a free and independent press, and the court’s ruling will help ensure that corporations can’t act as gatekeepers by blocking content and critical voices from the marketplace of ideas. With telecom companies now preparing to take the case to the Supreme Court, however, the fight is far from over.
An informed public is vital to our democracy. But we will never be truly informed unless we fight for the media’s ability to hold those with power accountable — from corporations to the government to billionaire presidential candidates — without fearing the repercussions. That’s the only way to achieve what then-Rep. John E. Moss (D-Calif.), the primary author of the Freedom of Information Act a half-century ago, identified as the inherent goal of the right to a free press: protecting the public’s right to know. America cannot be great again without leaders who understand the importance of a free press and who are committed to ensuring that, as Madison put it, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance.”
© 2016 Washington Post