Committee to Protect Journalism: Biggest Threat Is Donald Trump

Liberals are wrong.  The trickle-down effect exists.  As the opinions editor of a mid-sized daily newspaper in Florida, I attest that it does.

It surfaces nearly every time President Donald Trump utters the words "fake news."  Trump's signature rhetorical salvo at his foils in the national media drives some of our local pro-Trump readers to lump all journalists together.  Thus, our paper's reporters, who work diligently to serve and enlighten their community, and who don't come within a thousand miles of Washington, still become the local Jim Acosta.

Admittedly, as a journalist, I find this situation frustrating.  But absorbing and dealing with our readers' objections about the news media is not nearly as frustrating as watching the national media's hyperventilating, and often panicky, response to much of Trump's Twitter-fed bombast.

That, as I see it, does more to hurt the journalism industry than almost anything Trump does.

Take, for example, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the self-described "independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide," which also works to "defend the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal."

Back in December, the CPJ announced that the number of journalists jailed around the globe for practicing their craft had reached a record high.  As The New York Times recapped the report, 262 reporters wound up in a prison cell during 2017, three more than in 2016.  The bulk of them were incarcerated for "antigovernment activities, many of them under broad and vague counterterrorism laws," the Times reported.

The CPJ found that roughly half (134) were jailed in just three countries: Turkey, China, and Egypt.  The rest were spread around prisons in nearly a dozen other idyllic havens of liberty – places such as Vietnam, Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.

And how many rotted away in the United States' domestic gulags?

Zero.  Zilch.  Nada.

Yet who was responsible for the repression of the media in all of these perilous pockets of despotism?

Trump, of course.

The American president, according to the Times' account, had jeopardized journalists everywhere because he "had 'cozied up to strongmen' and done little to stand up for human rights."

"President Donald Trump's nationalistic rhetoric, fixation on Islamic extremism, and insistence on labeling critical media 'fake news' serves to reinforce the framework of accusations and legal charges that allow such leaders to preside over the jailing of journalists," the CPJ said in its report.

Of particular note within the CPJ tally was the subset of 21 jailed journalists – another record – who were rounded up on accusations of spreading "false news."  Who says Trump lacks clout overseas?

Now, most of us might think it's ridiculous to blame Trump for jailing reporters in countries he does not preside over, has not visited, or probably could not find on a map.

But then, most of us don't toil for or belong to the CPJ, which strangely doubled down on its dubious logic earlier this month.

After Trump, who apparently believes that the only bad controversy is a dormant one, announced his own "Fake News Awards," in order to, as he tweeted, recognize "Dishonesty & Bad Reporting in various categories," the CPJ replied with its own awards that, according to its website, were intended to spotlight "world leaders who have gone out of their way to attack the press and undermine the norms that support freedom of the media."

"From an unparalleled fear of their critics and the truth, to a relentless commitment to censorship, these five leaders and the runner-ups [sic] in their categories have gone above and beyond to silence critical voices and weaken democracy," the CPJ noted.

Turkey's RecepTayip Erdoğan, Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Russia's Vladimir Putin, China's Xi Jinping, Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi, and Poland's Andrzej Duda were some who made the cut.

Yet the worst of the worst – in the category of Overall Achievement in Undermining Global Press Freedom – went to, you guessed it, Donald Trump.

Trump prevailed not because he rhetorically lashes media organizations that, at times, have been forced to correct major stories or discipline journalists who misled the public with bogus reports.  Rather, the CPJ lauded Trump for failing to lecture the likes of Erdoğan and Putin to don velvet gloves before handling the press, for not advocating for new laws that allow the media to keep sources anonymous, for not reversing proposed cuts in U.S. taxpayer funding for "international organizations that buttress international norms in support of free expression."  (Would that include the CPJ?)  Oh, and there is that "record number of reporters in prison" thing.

What's interesting about the CPJ's list is who is not on it.  Where is Kim Jong-un? Bashar Assad?  Rodrigo Duterte?  How about the leaders of the other countries on the list of places where journalists sit behind bars?

Back home, prior to Trump, Barack Obama turned federal agents loose on reporters and threatened to prosecute them for their work; Richard Nixon put journalists on his infamous "enemies list"; Franklin Roosevelt created a censorship office to filter information; John Adams enacted egregious laws that criminalized criticism of the president and actually jailed journalists.

Yet we've sold ourselves on the premise that Trump's frequent bashing of the news media is unprecedented among American presidents.

Because the media's hand-wringing has led some to do their homework, we know that many, if not most, of our past chief executives shared Trump's contempt for the journalists of their day.

For instance, in 1807, John Norvell, a Michigan editor and aspiring publisher, sought President Thomas Jefferson's advice about how a newspaper should operate.  Jefferson replied (in the original):

So as to be most useful, I should answer, 'by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.' Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly deprive the nation of it's benefits, than is done by it's abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knolege with the lies of the day.


Still, the CPJ has a point.  The relative ease with which other governments jail or harm reporters is troubling.  In a perfect world, they should enjoy the freedom to report that American journalists expect.  But the world isn't perfect, which is why the CPJ should admit that its Trump-shaming is silly.

Trump has no influence over how other leaders treat journalists.  We know this because he has no influence at home.  American journalists freely and perpetually report his administration's negatives, and they openly slam a chief executive they clearly despise as a crook, a traitor, a racist, a malignant threat to world peace and mentally deranged – and in turn, they suffer no worse than an ego-bruising barrage of name-calling on Twitter or a rebuke from Trump's feisty spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

I don't know about the CPJ, but after witnessing eight years of supine hero-worship during the Obama reign, I think we may want to thank Trump for restoring the natural and constitutional order of the antagonistic relationship between the American media and the president.

Bill Thompson is the editorial page editor for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida.  The views expressed are his own.