What Media Owes Us
And what the public owes media.
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Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by agents of the Saudi government at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in 2018. Khashoggi’s life was extinguished after he had merely criticized the policies of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. While many of us are familiar with the brutal assassination of Khashoggi, less is known about the 57 journalists who were murdered in connection with their work in 2022—many of them were female reporters. Women reporters are also dealing with multiple levels of threat, abuse, and harassment, as noted in a recent Washington Post article, which isn’t as endemic for their male colleagues for merely doing their jobs.
There are over 65 journalists currently being held hostage, and over 50 journalists who have gone missing. Currently, there are over 530 jailed journalists worldwide, a record high. Investigative reporting is a dangerous business in a world that continues to lurch once again toward authoritarianism.
While there are no journalists currently jailed in North America, freedom of the press is in danger here in the United States. The U.S. is ranked 42nd on the World Press Freedom Index, up two spots since the Biden administration reinstated regular White House and federal agency press briefings. Just one administration ago, Trump reportedly urged FBI director James Comey to throw journalists behind bars.
Donald J. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis, both of whom are likely candidates for 2024, would like the Supreme Court to overturn New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which would allow politicians to sue reporters and news organizations for any story they deemed “unfavorable.” That would be a massive blow to press freedom, and would surely be weaponized as an intimidation tactic against journalists by wannabe-authoritarians here in the U.S.
Right now, many Republican politicians have continued to take Trump’s past example and have avoided taking direct questions from the press. Elected Republicans are avoiding the press at both the federal and local levels. It’s crystal clear that many of these elected officials have conveniently forgotten that they’re not only avoiding the press, but the public that they are elected to serve.
If New York Times Co. v. Sullivan is overturned by SCOTUS, it will become much more difficult, if not impossible, to hold corrupt politicians accountable.
Even with that terrifying prospect on the horizon, many in legacy media are entering the 2024 election cycle reporting on politics, policy, and politicians as if everything is still pre-2015 “business as usual.” With Ron DeSantis banning books on African American history (which is American history) and Republicans copying this tactic across the country, clearly nothing is business as usual for this new critical general election cycle.
Every single election should be viewed as crucial. If Al Gore had won in 2000, neither Chief Justice John Roberts nor Justice Samuel Alito would have been appointed to the Supreme Court and the Voting Rights Act would still be intact, and so would Roe. This new election should be viewed even more dire than 2000 and 2016 combined because abortion rights and voting rights have both been gutted. Yes, it can get worse.
Forget speaking the truth to power, they’re not hearing it. “Power” is off-shoring their money to avoid paying taxes. “Power” is banning books that tell our nation’s truth. “Power” is threatened by equality and so it drafts laws to push people further into the margins. “Power” is not showing up to press conferences to be held accountable. We need a robust independent media ready to speak the truth about power to the public. We need an expansive independent media that never has to run their stories through corporate ownership for approval in case it affects the brasses’ financial portfolio. We need strong independent media that uses clear language, not euphemisms, to soften stories around abortion, climate change, or political disinformation. We need our press to not act like stenographers or worse, publicists, for police departments, politicians, or “DC insiders,” whose remarks are often taken down verbatim, with little to no context.
We need our media to take an honest assessment of itself and its future in this county; to recognize that one party is trying to roll back and strip away their rights, and the other party is trying to protect and expand those rights. Treating both political parties as objectively “the same” is not only baffling, it’s catastrophic.
Have listed some of what we need, what does any member of our press, owe the American public? Specifically, what is the moral and ethical obligation of the press to the public? It took the SCOTUS multiple rulings during the 20th century to firmly cement the idea that the purpose of the free press is to be the public’s “watchdog.” The free press is our protection against government overreach, as the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black stated in the 1971 SCOTUS decision New York Times Co. v. United States, “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” Walter Dean of the American Press Institute stated, “The purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.”
The media has failed to vet candidates like Rep. Anna Paulina Luna and Rep. George Anthony Devolder Santos until after they were elected. It is the media’s job to investigate candidates running for a seat of power, and examine what their true agenda is, or in George Santos’s case, what their true identity is. Voters cannot “make the best possible decisions” without that critical information.
Many in the public now are quite literally missing crucial information. Over 1,800 local newspapers have closed in the U.S. since 2004 and 360 of those papers have closed since COVID. These local independent outlet closures have had a detrimental effect on local communities in desperate need of truthful reporting, and are now more susceptible to disinformation. Independent media and its investigative reporting have seemingly taken a backseat to legacy media’s profit-driven clickbait journalism and access journalism, neither of which serves the public’s well-being.
While we know what the media owes us, as members of the American public, we owe the media reciprocity as well. The public must demand an expanded publicly funded independent media, and we the public must also help fund that media from our own pockets. No, it’s not easy to compete with Jeff Bezos and the Rupert Murdochs of the world, but we must. If we do not, we are not active participants in determining what information reaches the public space and which stories are told. If we do not help supplement independent media, disinformation, clickbait content without substance, and misinformation will continue to flow unabated as the 2024 election cycle cranks up.
We desperately need independent media, and independent media immeasurably needs us.
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