Monday was World Press Freedom Day, a United Nations-approved “reminder to governments to respect press freedom” that most nations ignore.
The 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders reports that “journalism, the main vaccine against disinformation, is completely or partly blocked in 73% of the 180 countries ranked by the organization.”
Thirty-two journalists around the globe were reportedly killed last year. Already this year, in Afghanistan – in an episode enough to make one cry – three young women employees of a local TV station in Jalalabad were gunned down in March by the local Islamic State affiliate. That’s after a 26-year-old woman presenter at the same station named Malalai Maiwand was shot dead in December.
Can you imagine the courage it takes for young women (and men) to continue to work in journalism in Afghanistan, or civil-war-torn Myanmar or Belarus, or in many African nations? Or to keep trying to present real news in the handful of independent online or provincial outlets that still exist in Russia? (The many brave independent Chinese journalists who once functioned in print and online are almost completely silenced.)
Yet, today’s main threat to press freedom in the United States is more insidious than grisly murders. And it undermines the very future of our democratic system.
I refer, of course, to the growth of an alternative media universe, amplified by Donald Trump, that attracts a sizable portion of the American public into their own news silo – and feeds them a constant and hypnotic “news” diet of outright lies.
This cuts to the heart of how we define press freedom.
We are not (yet) in a “1984 “era, to cite the famous George Orwell novel about a totalitarian society whose members are taught that “freedom is slavery” and “ignorance is strength.” The press is still free to report the facts, but an important segment of the media, especially on TV, radio and the internet, has chosen to use that freedom to promote an endless stream of falsehoods about public health and political issues.
I needn’t repeat here the history of how Roger Ailes and Fox News built a network that looked like (and in the past partly acted like) a news network. It soon devolved, however, into a source of radical right fantasies, from the birther lie about President Barack Obama’s birthplace to COVID-19 denial to the continued promotion of the biggest lie of all – that the 2020 election was stolen.
In the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Fox backed off slightly, but small, propaganda-style networks like Newsmax and One America News rushed to capture their defecting viewers. In a race to the bottom, Fox junked some news shows and has gone full bore with its opinion blast of untruths.
We are not talking here of serious debate about controversial questions – whether about masking or climate change – or critiques of President Joe Biden’s policies.
We are talking of lies that mislead much of the public.
We have Tucker Carlson telling viewers that Biden wants war with Russia – or urging them to call the cops if they see a masked child and report “child abuse.” Or John Roberts’ false claim that Biden wants Americans to cut 90% of red meat from their diet. Along with the constant lies about massive 2020 election fraud that feed the GOP public’s pressure for laws to suppress voting.
This constant litany of lies has serious consequences.
A September Gallup poll reported that only 4 in 10 U.S. adults say they have “a great deal” (9%) or “a fair amount” (31%) of trust and confidence in the media (newspapers, TV, and radio) to report the news “accurately, and fairly.”
But the gap between the two political parties is stunning. Seventy-three percent of Democrats reported a great or fair amount of trust, while only 10% of Republicans did.
We can surely attribute much of the latter figure to the misinformation promoted by Fox, its imitators and talk radio. Misinformation on COVID-19 testing and treatments that helped doom hundreds of thousands of Americans. And mistrust of election results that undermines the country and helps our adversaries abroad.
That’s why I believe it’s necessary to start labeling false media propaganda as a direct threat to press freedom.
As Hannah Arendt, the great expert on totalitarian rule, said in 1974: “What makes it possible for a dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed. If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. With such a people you can then do what you please.”
Twitter was correct to ban the former president.
Open debate should be welcomed by all sides (including Democratic progressives), but constant, overt lies undermine the republic. Those talking heads from Congress who promote the Big Election Lie should be reprimanded on talk shows when they do so.
To let those lies spread not only undermines press freedom but also promotes civil war.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the the Philadelphia Inquirer. Write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA 19101, or by email at email@example.com.