The Committee to Protect Journalists, a group alleging to promote press freedom and the rights of journalists, gave President Donald Trump the Overall Achievement in Undermining Global Press Freedom Award in its Press Oppressors awards this week. The story was giddily retweeted across the liberal Twitterverse because, one imagines, people actually believe it.
Watching Trump and the media slap fight like a couple of sloshed Real Housewives hasn’t done wonders for the country, granted. But setting aside the melodrama, and the Kabuki theater, and the symbiotic relationship between the two, the fact is that self-serving complaints about American press freedoms being in peril are unqualified bunk.
For one thing, the very breadth and intensity of the anti-Trump press illustrates there are few inhibitions and no strictures on their freedom of expression. Trump’s attacks on journalists — some of them brought on by their own shoddy and partisan behavior — are often unseemly and unhealthy, but it hasn’t stopped anyone from engaging, investigating, writing, saying, protesting, or sharing their deep thoughts with the entire group — every day, all the time.
That’s not to say average Americans don’t have plenty of reasons to be worried about the future of free expression. There are forces gathering that aspire to criminalize dissent and punish Americans for their unpopular opinions. In fact, many of the loudest voices crying out about Trump’s fascism fully support these efforts, rationalize them, or are complicity silent.
“While previous U.S. presidents have each criticized the press to some degree, they have also made public commitments to uphold its essential role in democracy, at home and abroad,” claims the Committee to Protect Journalists. It’s true the last president made many public commitments to uphold the press’s essential role in democracy while he was secretly scouring the phone records of reporters and an editor of the Associated Press to uncover leakers. Democrats showed their commitment to a free and open press by siccing the Justice Department on a Fox News reporter and calling him a criminal “co-conspirator” for attempting to solicit leaked classified information, as journalists have been doing forever.
If the Trump administration, which has a bigger leak problem than any in history, were to engage in anything resembling this kind of behavior, it would rightly be considered a massive scandal. Every newscast and every front page would lead with it.
But it’s not just about the past. While Trump’s efforts to stop fabulist Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury from being published are silly and counterproductive and sure to fail, he is merely accessing the legal rights that all Americans enjoy. In the meantime, Democrats currently support new laws that would allow the state to ban political books and documentaries. The years of President Obama made overturning the First Amendment via the overturn of Citizens United a tenet of the Democratic party platform. Obama, in perfect syntax, engaged in an act of norm-breaking by calling out the Supreme Court publicly for upholding the First Amendment. That was rhetoric, too. Few defenders of the press seemed bothered by any of it.
Those claiming that the president of the United States (Obama or Trump) is “overall” more detrimental to press freedoms than the leaders of Russia, Turkey, Egypt, or China not only denigrate those truly fighting for press freedoms in authoritarian nations but also show us that they don’t really understand how American rights work to begin with. Because not only is the United States far more superior in its embrace of open political discourse than authoritarian states, or developing nations, or (nearly) every state in the Middle East; the United States is superior to Western European nations as well.
There is no country in Europe that boasts as healthy an environment for press freedom or free speech as the United States — and considering the attitude of elites, it’s doubtful they want that dynamic to change. In Europe, libel laws are frequently used by the rich and powerful to suppress unfavorable coverage. In England, for example, Trump would likely have been able to quash the Wolff book. In Germany, the state demands that private online outlets govern speech that doesn’t comport with their diktats. In France, the government will decide what is real news. The European Commission Code of Conduct features an array of demands for the government to police speech, which includes online “hate speech” — a perpetually flexible and easily abused phrase — among other things. Increasing numbers of Americans, some no doubt worried about Trump fascism, support the implementation of these kinds of laws here.
The press is probably safer from government interference (we can talk about megacorporations instilling speech codes another time) than it was from 2001 to 2016. The internet is freer for everyone, including journalists, because of the administration’s deregulatory efforts. Political discourse is in better hands because of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. And after an eight-year hibernation, the press has rediscovered its purpose as the opposition party.
Enjoy it while you can.