‘Trump & Truth’ Lecture Addresses Threats to Press Freedom

By Courtney Sherrill

The relationship between presidential administrations and the media has never been one of comradery, regardless of party affiliation.

However, due to President Donald Trump’s often-flagrant disrespect for journalists, the news media faces its most precarious period in modern history.

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, delivered this message to students, faculty, and members of the community gathered at Western Kentucky University’s Mass Media auditorium April 3. He spoke about the negative effects the Trump administration has on press freedom during the School of Journalism & Broadcasting’s John B. Gaines Family Lecture.

The owners of the Bowling Green Daily News, the Gaines family, sponsor the lecture.

Simon understands the news media landscape.

The New York Times, Slate and the World Policy Journal have published him. The graduate of Amherst College and Stanford University gained an appreciation for global journalism early in his career while working with locals as a freelance reporter in Mexico during the Guatemalan civil war and Chiapas conflict, he said.

Simon said studies conducted by CPJ show a rising level of danger surrounding journalists in foreign countries. The number of journalists murdered or imprisoned steadily increased since 1990, he said. A CPJ graph showed that Jihadi militants alone were responsible for nearly 40 percent of murdered journalists in 2015.

Why the continual rise in violence? And how does it relate to journalists in the U.S.?

Trump has adopted the term “fake news” to apply to any news he does not like, Simon said.

“In a single stroke, Trump greatly reduced the moral leverage the U.S. could have exercised in defense of journalism around the world,” Simon said.

Simon said that journalists used to be considered “gatekeepers,” meaning in order for radical groups to get out their messages, they had to talk with journalists.

However, the development of technology slowly diminished the gate-keeping role. Radical groups now use chat rooms, YouTube, and social media to communicate with their followers, Simon said. Therefore, they no longer need journalists, making journalists who seek to report the truth prime targets for violence.

“Much of the news is still compiled by human beings who gather and share their experiences, and those individuals are more vulnerable than ever,” Simon said.

Although the way the world transmits information has evolved, journalists of all types still work hard to uncover the truth.

For example, the majority of Syria is off limits to the international news media, Simon said. Citizen journalists have stepped up to get information out, an extremely dangerous task, Simon said.

The rise in technology forced repressive governments to adopt more sophisticated strategies in controlling access to information, he said. These totalitarian systems know that shutting down the internet would result in serious economic consequences, so instead they implement filtering, blocking and surveillance, Simon said.

This worldwide suppression of online access leads to the idea that, “ultimately the internet could be splintered into many different national systems, each with different rules,” Simon said.

Simon used Russia’s President Vladimir Putin as a prime example of a totalitarian leader suppressing the media.

Since Putin came to power in 1999, the control of Russia’s media and that in other countries has been altered drastically, Simon said.

“Deception and disinformation, not tanks and planes, are the new tools of power,” Simon said.

Russia has repeatedly used propaganda among its people and allegedly interfered with the U.S. election. Although there is uncertainty about the active involvement from Russian government, it has been proven that Russian hackers targeted the Democratic National Committee, Simon said.

However, Trump will call anyone who discovers new information on the matter a liar or “fake news”, Simon said.

In his belittlements of American journalism, Trump has created a new norm that appeals to dictators and totalitarians around the world, Simon said. It is impossible for the U.S. to intervene in an autocratic nation’s suppression of media because it would be deemed hypocrisy, Simon said. The president of the United States should serve as a moral compass to other countries concerning media relations, the absence of which could be condemning on a global scale, Simon said.

“I knew the things Trump said on TV and Twitter were unprofessional and immature, but I had no idea the effects it could have on media around the world,” said WKU student Miriam Chinkers, a junior from Lebanon, Tennessee.

There is a fear of what is to come for the future of journalism both on the home front and overseas, said Chinkers.

What can be done to ensure the global information system doesn’t collapse during the next four years of Trump’s term?

“Journalists should not allow themselves to become the (political) opposition,” Simon said. They must “be extremely careful not to adopt a partisan posture,” he said.

In doing so, they only distance themselves from large sections of society, making it easier for the government to create a divide, Simon said.

Simon remains adamant that hard-hitting, truthful news must still be reported.

“The news that matters comes not from briefings, but from probing, painstaking reporting,” he said.

The greatest power the media holds is the ability to hold government accountable and it is imperative that worldwide this fact remains the same, he said. Simon said there is a crucial, cohesive relationship that exists between journalists from America and around the world, a relationship currently in danger.

“We owe (journalists) support — we need to stand together and defend the global information system,” Simon said.

The current state of affairs is fragile, he said.

The field of journalism cannot carry on with a president that consistently condescends and belittles a profession devoted to seeking the truth, Simon said.

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