WASHINGTON—Time magazine’s four grim “Person of the Year” covers this week, of journalists who paid with their lives or their freedom for their reporting, are a timely reminder that a war on the truth is underway in the United States and around the world that endangers not just reporters, but all of us.
Journalism is at its core activism for the truth — not with a placard or a checkbook, not for any party or cause, but to draw back the curtain on hidden realities. Think of Upton Sinclair’s 1904 exposé of inhuman conditions in the meat-packing industry; Dorothea Lange’s photos of suffering during the Great Depression; countless history-altering investigations into corruption, lying, abuse of taxpayer monies, war crimes, and other wrongdoing by politicians and powerful figures.
Society benefits when journalists tell the truth without fear of retribution. Rigorously reported facts and context are essential to constructive debate on issues from health care, environmental regulations, and crime to migration, trade, and civil rights. It’s been a banner year for consumers of serious news — but one of the most difficult for those whose job it is to ferret out facts, demand accountability, and analyze solutions.
Five Capital Gazette employees were gunned down at their desks in sleepy Annapolis, Md., in June, by a man aggrieved that the paper wrote about his criminal behavior; surviving colleagues still put out a newspaper the next day. A Saudi critic and US-resident columnist for The Washington Post was dismembered in October by a kill squad sent by his government, but President Trump has dismissed the CIA’s “high confidence” that the crown prince ordered the killing and defends the ruthless strongman as a “great ally.” Two Reuters journalists in Myanmar were sentenced to seven years in September for exposing the murder of 10 minority Rohingya. In all, 52 journalists around the world have been killed for their work this year, 262 were imprisoned last year, and 60 are missing, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Yet when reporters are persecuted for truth-telling, there’s rarely a peep from Trump’s White House.
On the contrary, Trump’s protests are aimed at the press, calling us “fake news,” “enemies of the people,” “garbage,” “scum,” “downright dishonest,” “really bad people.” He lauds press-abusing strongmen abroad and has praised a Montana congressman who assaulted a reporter as “my kind of guy.” Trump goads supporters into booing and harassing the press, and it’s not uncommon to see T-shirts at his rallies making a sick joke of lynching: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” When unflattering stories come out – no matter how meticulously reported with on-the-record recordings and evidence – if they contradict Trump’s talking points, his loyalists dismiss them as “fake.”
His surrogates have risibly argued “truth isn’t truth” (Rudy Giuliani), “alternative facts” are a substitute for actual facts (Kellyanne Conway) or provably false statements by Trump aren’t lies (Sarah Sanders). The Washington Post fact-checker invented a new rating this week inspired by the president — the “bottomless Pinocchio,” for a false claim repeated over and over.
Trump’s dismissal of facts he doesn’t like as “fake news” has been noted and quoted by repressive regimes in Syria, Venezuela, the Philippines, Russia, Myanmar, and beyond. The strategy is obvious — discredit independent press as a font of reliable information and cast oneself as sole source of truth.
Here in the United States, the strategy is working on some people. A Knight Foundation/Gallup survey released in September found 9 in 10 Republicans say they’ve lost trust in the news media in recent years. But a study I commissioned for the Poynter Institute found in August that overall trust in news is up since last year, and trust in local news reporting remains strong, including among Republicans.
Journalists don’t choose this profession for riches or glory, but out of a sense of civic duty to inform and enable democratic decision-making. Most news employees toil in relative obscurity for low wages in an industry that has hemorrhaged jobs since 2000, shedding more newspaper workers in the United States in the last 18 years than coal, manufacturing, or fishing. The rise of the Internet has given way to new and better reporting, but has also killed old revenue models and elevated unverified media, propaganda, and outright conspiracies.
“The irony of Trump’s constant verbal attacks on journalists in this country and his indifference in the face of brutal media repression in so many parts of the world is that he may have finally awakened people to what’s at stake,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “Journalism isn’t perfect, but it’s the best tool we have for holding the powerful accountable, and we need it now more than ever.”
When asked last month about Time’s Person of the Year issue, Trump, who falsely claimed he’s graced Time’s cover more than anyone — going so far as to fake a magazine that hung in at least five of his resorts — said without a hint of irony, “I can’t imagine anybody else other than Trump.”
It must sting that the truth-tellers who hold the powerful accountable came out on top. But that’s how most stories end.