On America’s foremost night of revelry, ABC News went solemn.
Ten minutes before 2019 arrived, ABC tweeted that the big ball descending in Times Square "will be dedicated to protecting press freedom and celebrating the importance of journalism."
Organizers of the New Year’s Eve celebration chose that theme after picking the Committee to Protect Journalists as its honored charity for the event. The decision hinged on a couple of factors.
One was a Saudi hit squad’s ghoulish murder in October of sometime Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident who lived in the U.S., was featured on Time magazine’s recent "Person of the Year" issue, which was dedicated to journalists, including those murdered in June at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. Another influence was the CPJ’s recent report on incarcerated journalists. CPJ says 251 reporters are jailed around the world, with 28 imprisoned on "charges of false news," as ABC put it.
The slaughter of the innocent staffers at the humble Capital Gazette at the hands of a sociopath featured years earlier in the newspaper’s coverage is an unmitigated tragedy. They literally died for doing their jobs, and their sacrifice deserves to be honored.
Khashoggi is proving problematic, however. The Post and other media outlets spent weeks depicting him as a martyr for journalism and democracy. Yet the Post acknowledged in its own pages near Christmas that Khashoggi’s columns were reviewed in advance, "shaped" and at times used material drafted by members of a Qatari front group whose mission was to relentlessly pester Qatar’s antagonists running Saudi Arabia. The leader of that Qatari group actually pushed for Khashoggi to be more strident in criticizing the Saudis. The Post’s editors reportedly were unaware of his ties to the Qataris.
Nevertheless, by casting the spotlight on the CPJ, ABC News recalled the fact that the group clearly has no use for President Donald Trump, who is repeatedly yoked with journalists’ woes.
When reporting on jailed journalists at the end of 2017, the group asserted Trump’s "fake news" rhetoric enabled tyrants like Putin, Erdogan and Xi to crack down on reporters. After Trump released his own "fake news" awards in early 2018, the CPJ presented him an "Overall Achievement in Undermining Global Press Freedom" honor.
The CPJ is misguided in blaming Trump for what happens overseas, but it deserves credit for reminding us that breaking the news in some parts of the world is truly risky business.
Here in the U.S. during the Trump era, our elite media attempt to claim kinship with those brave journalists. But in reality no such linkage exists.
A distinction is important here. American journalists, like those in Annapolis, have been killed in the line of duty. In recent years, for example, they have died covering the 9/11 terrorist attacks, foreign drug traffickers, the Mafia and community crooks. Their work made them targets for harassment, intimidation and on rare occasions death.
But not by government officials, as frequently happens overseas.
Reporting on the Trump administration, the major national media organizations have demonstrated an astonishing mesh of cynicism, partisanship, sanctimony and self-aggrandizement. Yet when called out for it, particularly by the president himself, their resentment runneth over. Reflexively, they play the martyr card and urge the rest of America to believe that Trump represents some unique threat to them specifically and the First Amendment generally.
Yet we see that isn’t so. That’s because these same media mavens almost daily call Trump vile names — liar, bigot, racist, traitor, misogynist, crook, dolt, psychopath. But unlike reporters in Russia, Turkey, or China, for example, they don’t fear government agents will haul them off to a solitary cell at a federal supermax prison, or leave them face down in a ditch with skulls ventilated by a couple of 9mm rounds.
The U.S. media performs a vital function, and we must challenge government encroachment on its constitutional freedom. But journalists here are far from the circumstances the CPJ tracks elsewhere, and we are cheated in understanding our government when the media itself become the story, as too routinely occurs. That was true at the dawn of 2019, and regrettably we’ll see more of that throughout the year.
Bill Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editorial page editor of The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida.