Politics & Policy

The Press Must Take It as Well as Dish It Out

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein (Reuters photo: Pierre Albouy)
Trump’s bashing of journalists may not be civil, but it is not a violation of human rights.

In the country where United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein grew up, the government doesn’t criticize the press. Why would it, since in his native Jordan, the family (of which he happens to be a member) that controls almost all media also runs the country?

So perhaps it’s understandable that the prince doesn’t understand what happens in a real democracy, where the press can attack the government all it likes and those in power and their supporters also have the right to push back against their media critics. But it is still pretty outrageous for the man tasked with speaking on behalf of human rights around the world to denounce President Trump for his non-stop attacks on any media outlet or journalist who has the temerity to criticize him. Yet as crazy as it is to hear this sort of thing from the U.N., the problem is that it reflects the view of many of the journalists he is supporting.

Speaking in his official capacity as a U.N. high commissioner this week, Zeid slammed Trump for his attacks on the press. He said they were “poisonous because it has consequences elsewhere.” If journalists were harmed, he asked, “does the president not bear responsibility for this, for having fanned this?” Other nations would be inspired to crack down on freedom of the press, he said, adding the claim that recent actions in Cambodia were inspired by Trump. The prince also accused Trump of encouraging anti-Semitism and denounced his statements about Muslims, Hispanics, and transgendered people as “grossly irresponsible.”

That a Jordanian prince (albeit one who would be in line to inherit the throne of Iraq if the Hashemite monarchy deposed in 1958 were ever to be revived there) — even one who works for the U.N. — has something to say about these subjects is, well, gross. Jordan is a relatively liberal Arab state compared with its neighbors, but no one in its media would dare criticize King Abdullah and hope to stay employed. Moreover, an official who represents a country that does not have any Jews is in no position to discuss anti-Semitism except to confess that it is a dominant factor in its society and media. The tiny Christian minority also faces discrimination, and transgendered people cannot be said to have any rights.

To note this doesn’t excuse Trump. Though he is no anti-Semite or racist, the president has failed to consistently condemn right-wing hate groups, especially after Charlottesville. The president’s comments about the press are also often inaccurate and almost always over the top and unpresidential. If he spent less time worrying about what media critics say and more on the nuts and bolts of governing, both he and the country would be better off. Trump is a thin-skinned egotist who cannot tolerate criticism of any kind and encourages only fawning coverage from the likes of Sean Hannity and other sycophants. But those who lament his comments should worry less about what he says and more about why it resonates with so many Americans.

Prince Zeid has lived much of his life in the West, and his views reflect the zeitgeist of the U.N. bureaucracy and the international diplomatic community as much as they do Jordanian society. What he is doing is mimicking the liberal consensus of the American media, and that, more than his hypocrisy, is what is troubling about his remarks.

If liberal outlets like the New York Times and CNN are obsessed with what Trump says about the media, it is no small matter, because they really do think they ought to be above criticism. They may resent the “fake news” accusation that Trump repeatedly throws out about them, but what is fake about them is not so much the idea that they make stories up out of whole cloth (which is rare) as their pose of objectivity.

Much of the liberal mainstream media has embraced the “resistance” against Trump from the moment he took office. News organizations such as the Times and CNN have dropped any pretense of objectivity in their coverage. The wall between opinion and news has broken down in many outlets, and there seems to be little interest in repairing the breach. It has gotten to the point that editors, like the Wall Street Journal’s Gerard Baker, who chide their staff to keep their politics out of their news coverage are pilloried for their fastidiousness, and reporters like CNN’s Jim Acosta who openly espouse political views in their reports are cheered by their colleagues. That is why Trump’s views about the press are not only popular but also reflect the views of most Republicans and conservatives, including many who are not part of his faithful fan base.

The wall between opinion and news has broken down in many outlets, and there seems to be little interest in repairing the breach.

That the same people who lament Trump’s attacks on his press critics were silent when President Obama routinely bashed Fox News during his eight years in office makes them hypocrites. But the fact that they really think he has no right to answer them with as much if not more gusto than he is attacked with speaks volumes about their understanding of democracy.

A free press is essential to democracy, but so is the right to talk back to it, especially when so much of the media marches in lockstep on major issues.

Those of us who work in the press know only too well that speaking in public means that we are more or less inviting attacks, both fair and unfair, from those who don’t like our coverage or opinions. That isn’t pleasant, and in recent years the level of vituperation in our public squares has become worse. Trump bears some but not all of the responsibility for worsening it. But journalists, like politicians, know what we are signing up for when we do our jobs. No one wants to hear us complain about people being mean to us, because, unlike most citizens, we have the ability to answer back. Which is exactly why many of those without that chance love it when Trump lowers the boom on his critics.

Those who encourage violence against Trump’s critics are despicable, but incitement is a two-way street in 21st-century America. While we should deplore all threats against the press, let’s also remember that the one major instance of recent political violence in this country — the attempt to murder several Republican members of Congress while they were practicing for a softball game — could well be blamed on the over-the-top liberal rhetoric about health-care reform.

But while calls for more civility from Trump and everyone else in public life are well founded, the notion that journalistic immunity from tough criticism is a human right is risible. Foreign tyrannies need no encouragement from Trump to restrict freedom. Many Americans have lost the ability to listen to each other or to regard political opponents as having decent motives. But what members of the liberal press need to remember is that their critics have as much right to subject their work to criticism as they have to attack the president. Such give and take is not an attack on democracy; it is an expression of democracy. We may not expect Jordanian princes to understand that, but we have every right to demand that the liberal journalists from whom Prince Zeid is taking his cue start respecting their audiences who have had enough of their bias.

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