To fight suppression, the press must set even higher standards

opinion February 23, 2017 01:00

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It was an eerie feeling but nevertheless quite real. While brainstorming with my fellow Thai journalists last week on how to put a stop to the government’s emerging “command-and-control” effort against press freedom, I was reminded of a similar battle our American counterparts are facing against a president who is “confrontational, provocative, subversive and downright unapologetic”.

Donald Trump has called journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth”, saying he’s in “a running war” with them. Chief White House strategist Stephen Bannon has said media should “keep its mouth shut”, and called it “the opposition party”.

Journalists here have not yet been treated to such strident language. But occasional utterances from the powers-that-be point to the same direction.

The world’s richest man and biggest philanthropist appears to see things differently. In a recent interview with Quartz, Bill Gates spoke of the importance of news media in holding politicians accountable for their promises and in helping voters assess policies. “You can’t have a democracy without a media function like that,” Gates said. “If anybody says we don’t need the media, that’s a little scary.”

I have yet to hear any leading business tycoon here airing views along these lines. If anything, they might even be siding with those in power. The silence on such vital issues remains deafening.

Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, warned recently that suppression of a free press is “how dictators get started”. He took Trump to task over his continued declarations that the press and news networks are “the enemy of the American people”.

“I hate the press,” McCain told NBC’s “Meet the Press”. “But the fact is we need you. We need a free press.

“I’m very serious now, if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press,” he continued. “Without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”

It’s generally held that the job of a journalist is to report the news, not become part of it. But even in the first few weeks of his presidency, Trump’s war on the media is threatening to overwhelm the news cycle. Last Friday he stepped on the accelerator with a tweet that branded the news media – specifically the New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS and CNN – as the “enemy of the American people”.

And it wasn’t just a one-shot affair. White House chief of staff Reince Priebus backed Trump’s comments during an interview with John Dickerson on CBS, describing recent coverage of Trump’s ties to Russia and his relationship with the intelligence community as “grossly inaccurate, overstated, overblown [and] total garbage”.

Refusing to take it lying down, Dickerson pushed back at Priebus, asking, “Is the strategy now to answer any question by just turning it back on the media and using a fight with the media as a way to try to control the storyline?”

Earlier, in an open letter to Trump to mark his inauguration on January 20, the US press corps laid down what the new president could expect from the media. Here are a few excerpts:

“While you have every right to decide your ground rules for engaging with the press, we have some, too. It is, after all, our airtime and column inches that you are seeking to influence. We, not you, decide how best to serve our readers, listeners and viewers. So think of what follows as a backgrounder on what to expect from us over the next four years:

“Access is preferable, but not critical. You may decide that giving reporters access to your administration has no upside. We think that would be a mistake on your part, but again, it’s your choice. We are very good at finding alternative ways to get information; indeed, some of the best reporting during the campaign came from news organisations that were banned from your rallies. Telling reporters that they won’t get access to something isn’t what we’d prefer, but it’s a challenge we relish.

“We decide how much airtime to give your spokespeople and surrogates. We will strive to get your point of view across, even if you seek to shut us out. But that does not mean we are required to turn our airwaves or column inches over to people who repeatedly distort or bend the truth. 

“We believe there is an objective truth, and we will hold you to that. When you or your surrogates say or tweet something that is demonstrably wrong, we will say so, repeatedly. Facts are what we do, and we have no obligation to repeat false assertions; the fact that you or someone on your team said them is newsworthy, but so is the fact that they don’t stand up to scrutiny. Both aspects should receive equal weight.

“We’ll obsess over the details of government. You and your staff sit in the White House, but the American government is a sprawling thing. We will fan reporters out across the government, embed them in your agencies, source up those bureaucrats. The result will be that while you may seek to control what comes out of the West Wing, we’ll have the upper hand in covering how your policies are carried out.

“We will set higher standards for ourselves than ever before. We credit you with highlighting serious and widespread distrust in the media across the political spectrum. Your campaign tapped into that, and it was a bracing wake-up call for us. We have to regain that trust. And we’ll do it through accurate, fearless reporting, by acknowledging our errors and abiding by the most stringent ethical standards we set for ourselves.

“We’re going to work together. You have tried to divide us and use reporters’ deep competitive streaks to cause family fights. Those days are ending. We now recognise that the challenge of covering you requires that we cooperate and help one another whenever possible. So, when you shout down or ignore a reporter at a press conference who has said something you don’t like, you’re going to face a unified front. 

“We will, of course, still have disagreements, and even important debates, about ethics or taste or fair comment. But those debates will be ours to begin and end.

“We’re playing the long game. Best-case scenario, you’re going to be in this job for eight years. We’ve been around since the founding of the republic, and our role in this great democracy has been ratified and reinforced again and again and again. You have forced us to rethink the most fundamental questions about who we are and what we are here for. For that we are most grateful.”

Perhaps Thailand’s media associations, now fighting a vigorous government attempt to pass legislation compelling every journalist to seek a “professional licence” – which can be revoked by a “council” dominated by politicians and bureaucrats – could translate the above letter into Thai and then submit it “to whom it may concern”.