The United States in 53rd Place
Press Freedom Free-Fall
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, October 28, 2006
Who’d have thought that Finland, Iceland, Ireland and the Netherlands—nations usually known for their cryogenics, their Ulysses and their windmills—would be the standard-bearers of press freedom, while the United States, mother of all First Amendments and freedom-preacher to the world, would displace Lebanon as it falls to a mediocre ranking of 53? Who’d have thought that press freedom in the United States is now no more exemplary than it is in Botswana, Tonga and Croatia, and less exemplary than it is in Ghana, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Mali, Mozambique? Reporters Without Borders put out is 2006 rankings, and if you’re an American journalist, or worse, a journalist in America (as I am little bit of both), this is not your happiest year. Besides the state and federal courts’ assault on reporters looking to protect their sources, “Freelance journalist and blogger Josh Wolf was imprisoned when he refused to hand over his video archives. Sudanese cameraman Sami al-Haj, who works for the pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera, has been held without trial since June 2002 at the US military base at Guantanamo, and Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein has been held by US authorities in Iraq since April this year.” The ranking reflects press freedom fostered or diminished by governments. It also reflects how press freedom is affected by events and fanatics out of the control of either governments or journalists. Denmark was ranked first last year. It dropped to 19 th this year “ because of serious threats against the authors of the Mohammed cartoons published there in autumn 2005. For the first time in recent years in a country that is very observant of civil liberties, journalists had to have police protection due to threats against them because of their work.”
That being the case, the ranking of the United States should be even lower than it is, because it doesn’t reflect enough the real problem of threats to press freedom in the United States. It isn’t the government. It’s business (through advertisers), the religious right (through public pressure, bullying publicity, slander) and most pernicious of all, the media’s own self-censorship. Latest example: NBC’s refusal to air ads for the Dixie Chicks’s movie, “because they are disparaging to the President.” Of course the press did by far greater damage to itself in 2002 and pretty much through the beginning of this year in its shameless submission to and dissemination of President Bush’s lies on Iraq and the so-called war on terror (and then there are the domestic lies, but space is limited).
And how do you measure the damage done to press freedom, let alone to the press itself, when the likes of Katie Couric are elevated to the anchor chair of one of the nation’s premier news networks, or when the likes of Anderson Cooper and Brian Williams are equated with serious news, or when newspaper companies like the Tribune Co. carry on purges against their own staffs? The United States is still a safe place to do journalism, but not necessarily a daring place to do journalism. As Michael Massing wrote in the New York Review of Books last December, “the reluctance to venture into politically sensitive matters, to report disturbing truths that might unsettle and provoke, remains by far the most troubling.”