Freedom of the press around the world is facing a grave new threat. The specter of Western news organizations colluding — through either coercion, ideology, or financial interest — with authoritarian states and non-state actors presents a challenge to American national security and global democracy.
When interest, ideology, or intimidation are brought to bear on news organizations, the result is often political and humanitarian disaster. Looking around the world today, we see these forces exerted by major powers such as China and Russia, but also by terror groups, such as Iran-proxy Hamas, which apply the principles of asymmetric warfare to managing one of today’s most important battlefields: the media.
We learned just how serious this threat is in the latest war between Israel and Hamas. Israel, responding to thousands of rockets rained on its population centers, bombed a Gaza tower employed by Palestinian terror groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In the wake of the attack, the world discovered that the building also served as local headquarters for some of the world’s most powerful news agencies, including The Associated Press.
The attack on an empty building provoked an outcry by Israel critics, who seized on the opportunity to lob heavy-handed criticism at the region’s only democracy. The outrage, however, obscured the much more disturbing reality, which is that Hamas has honed sophisticated methods of influencing the global news agenda — in this case, by effectively holding international journalists hostage.
More worrying is that the world has known about this trend for nearly a decade (at least). In 2014, during the last major battle between Hamas and Israel, a former Associated Press reporter named Matti Friedman wrote about what might amount to complicity by the media organization in the terror group’s activities:
The AP staff in Gaza City would witness a rocket launch right beside their office, endangering reporters and other civilians nearby—and the AP wouldn’t report it, not even in AP articles about Israeli claims that Hamas was launching rockets from residential areas. Hamas fighters would burst into the AP’s Gaza bureau and threaten the staff—and the AP wouldn’t report it.
It is exceedingly rare that journalists deliberately attempt to carry water for an authoritarian regime or other bad actor. Instead, these governments and groups employ a heavy-handed approach to swaying coverage. The calculus is brutally simple: If reporters stay within the boundaries of acceptable coverage, they are unharmed and, in some cases, get crucial access to sources. But if they don’t, they risk losing access to sources, the ability to report from places like Gaza, and even their lives.
More important, this trend of downward pressure on media organizations shows how much some have corrupted important institutions. One notable example this week came from the watchdog NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which is ostensibly devoted to protecting journalists (and which frequently does this important work very effectively).
Rather than inquiring as to why international reporters had (by the AP’s explanation) unwittingly shared a building with a U.S.-listed terror group for up to 15 years, RSF chose to try to influence the powerful and notoriously anti-Israel International Criminal Court (ICC) to pursue a war-crimes probe against Israel. In purposely ignoring the well-documented dangers to journalists in Gaza by the ruling forces for many years, RSF has shown that media-industry watchdogs are also susceptible to undue influence by anti-democratic forces such as Hamas.
Unfortunately, none of this is new. In researching my book The Gray Lady Winked, which looks at how the New York Times’ misreporting radically alters history, I discovered that a decade of skewed, false, or otherwise shoddy reporting by the New York Times out of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s could largely be traced back to a Times Berlin bureau chief known (even then) as a Nazi collaborator. When this was brought to the attention of the Times’ owners, they threatened to slap the whistleblower with a lawsuit. The Nazi-loving journalist’s unmatched access to German sources gave the Times a competitive advantage in its media market that it would not risk losing.
Across the globe, we see the same trend at work today. In recent weeks, a Washington Post columnist accused the New York Times of “bending over backwards” to downplay theories that COVID-19 might have originated in a Chinese lab. The Times’ significant investment in China (which includes a digital edition of its newspaper and a Chinese-market luxury lifestyle magazine), combined with the Chinese government’s penchant to block access to the Times’ digital properties whenever it perceives the newspaper to be reporting incorrectly, cannot be simply ignored.
Seen within the context of the corporate interests of the New York Times Company, the New York Times displays a lack of serious reporting on issues of sensitivity to China’s government, such as the origins of COVID-19 or Uyghur slavery, which the Times has resisted describing in the kinds of severe terms, such as “ethnic cleansing,” it uses in reporting on the Palestinians.
But even as it has hedged its language, and tone, in its coverage of slavery in China, the New York Times had no problem with promoting the factually challenged 1619 Project, an effort to reframe American history in terms of slavery — which the U.S. abolished more than 150 years ago. Why? And why would the Times not fully explore all possibilities regarding COVID-19’s origins? What, if any, was the financial and political calculus in these cases? How do media outlets such as the Times handle demands by anti-democratic governments? What oversight mechanisms are there at the very apex of these organizations that can ensure transparency?
Just as the New York Times, CNN, ABC, and others have asked questions such as these concerning foreign influence on Big Tech companies such as Apple, Google, and Facebook, so too should we be asking these important questions about Big Media.
America’s political system and public culture have long considered the press to be the Fourth Estate of government. But even that weighty moniker doesn’t fully capture the essential role the news media play in a democracy. In a world where media have become the stage on which public life is played out, safeguarding these values means ensuring that journalists like those in Gaza are free from intimidation, fear, and undue influence. That is something all of us — and Congress most of all — should be concerned by. Congressional hearings should be quickly convened and supported by Democrats, Republicans, and independents, as a free press is the lifeblood of American democracy.