With attacks on journalists increasing and the space for free expression shrinking, Tuesday’s presidential election will be decisive for the future of press freedom in the United States and around the world.
We in the news media have closely covered Donald Trump’s presidency, but far too often the substance of the story has been obscured by the overall spectacle. This has desensitized many to the headline-grabbing personal assaults against reporters that have been a prominent feature of Trump’s presidency and, frankly, his popularity.
Respect for free speech is among the many norms shattered during this presidency. Trump’s recent “60 Minutes” meltdown and his decision to preemptively release his interview with Lesley Stahl make up just one example.
His habit of verbally abusing journalists, and inciting crowds to do the same, is a hallmark of authoritarian leaders instantly recognizable to citizens of such societies. For Americans, though, this approach to reporters and an independent media is still very new, so on the eve of Election Day, we must assess the damage that has been inflicted and how we might reverse course.
Even more corrosive than Trump’s combative speech toward and about journalists are his administration’s efforts to hamstring media outlets’ reporting by enveloping them in a vortex of red tape and imposing restrictions on who can cover what. The latest indications of how far the U.S. government has strayed from the promise of the First Amendment are chilling.
The Department of Homeland Security recently proposed rule changes that could heavily affect foreign news agencies and restrict their reporters’ ability to work in the United States. According to DHS, such decisions would be based on “defining a foreign media organization consistent with U.S. Department of State and DHS policy.”
When assessing the health of a democracy, official restrictions on domestic and foreign journalists’ ability to report within a society are a bad indicator. Disturbingly, such limitations are not only expanding but are also appearing in previously healthy democracies.
While the public rarely hears about such hurdles, correspondents in China, Russia, Iran and other authoritarian societies live and work under constant pressures that they understand are intended to impede their jobs. The Trump administration is simply employing moves from an old authoritarian playbook that have proved successful at limiting critical coverage in illiberal societies.
Along with attempting to limit foreign reporters’ access to the United States, the Trump administration has nearly completed its years-long effort to recast Voice of America as little more than a propaganda outlet for the Trump agenda.
Just last week, Michael Pack, Trump’s confirmed chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media — VOA’s parent organization — unilaterally rescinded the firewall that blocked the person in his position (that is, a presidential appointee) from controlling the editorial content and decision-making at the government-funded news outlets within the agency. This firewall was the most essential pillar of the media organization’s independence.
Voice of America has long served as one of the lone independent and uncensored sources of news for millions of people around the world whose governments deny them access to unbiased reporting.
State-run media outlets that push the government line, limiting foreign correspondents’ ability to operate in a country, officials slandering journalists with impunity — this is the media landscape that the Trump administration envisions for the United States. And as Trump’s term winds down, he is close to achieving all of it.
Every day that Trump remains in office all but guarantees a further and faster slide toward a more suffocating environment. Americans’ continued rights to expression and our leaders’ commitments to upholding and promoting these rights and values are on the ballot.
For decades, the U.S. government could be relied on to stand up for this most basic American principle. Our president wielded enormous influence over governments that mistreated journalists. On Trump’s watch, however, the U.S. government has not only mistreated journalists but has also failed to hold accountable the jailers and killers of journalists elsewhere.
While Trump’s behavior has stirred outrage since before he was first elected in 2016, he has never faced any consequences. Four more years of Trump would only worsen the erosions of press freedom around the globe — while plunging this country further into crisis.
The devastating decline in press freedom around the world and this president’s targeting of journalists for abuse contribute to undermining U.S. credibility as a leading international force for democratic values. That credibility will be difficult, though not impossible, for the next president to win back. But Trump has already, and permanently, abdicated the moral authority of his office.
Watch Opinions videos: