America's freedom depends on the press

Posted June 23

Withholding things from the press has become something of a reflex with the Trump administration. On Monday, for example, the executive branch barred reporters from broadcasting that day's White House press briefing -- the briefings on or off-camera already having dwindled to a handful this month. And Trump has floated the idea of ditching the live briefing altogether.

But he is not the only one bringing down the curtain on open government and press availability: The Republican-controlled Senate -- in total secrecy -- crafted a health care bill that will affect millions of Americans.

Are we surprised by all this? President Donald Trump's assertions that news outlets (such as this one) are "fake news" and journalists are "in many cases ... not good people," recalls his threat during the presidential campaign to loosen the libel laws so he can go after outlets that print stories he doesn't like.

Where he has led, it seems many have followed in this decidedly un-American, anti-press trend.

Beyond the rampant trashing of the press online, at protests and other events, reporters have been arrested, slapped and body-slammed for asking legitimate questions of politicians. The governor of Texas even joked about shooting reporters. Some joke.

Against this troubling series of events comes the even scarier revelations in a new documentary, "Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press," which debuts Friday on Netflix. It is, among other things, a cautionary account that should serve as a warning to democracy-loving citizens.

For one, the film shows how billionaire Peter Thiel secretly funded Hulk Hogan's privacy case against Gawker Media over a sex tape Gawker put online. Thiel, it seems, was upset about stories Gawker had run on him, one of which outed him as gay.

A billionaire co-founder of PayPal, Thiel could afford to take on Gawker, and thanks to a $140 million verdict in Hogan's favor, put them out of business.

But there's more. "Nobody Speak" also shows how casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a major funder of Republican candidates, decided to buy the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the largest paper in Nevada, so he could control how the paper reported on his business empire. Shortly after the sale, in fact, the paper's star columnist was told he could not mention Adelson in his column. The reporter resigned.

Billionaires using their money in power plays is nothing new. But when they do this to destroy media they don't like, it constitutes a direct threat to American democracy. "We don't pick and choose what sort of publications are permissible," says legendary First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams in the documentary, noting that if we shut down the press we don't like, it "empowers the government" to do whatever it wants, without the scrutiny of the media.

It's not as if the press hasn't been under the gun before. Richard Nixon was notorious for his hatred of the press, and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, entered the Quotes Hall of Fame by referring to reporters as "nattering nabobs of negativism."

Even Thomas Jefferson, who once said he would prefer newspapers without a government over a government without newspapers, also opined that "nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper."

But these current attacks are something different. By referring to the press as an "enemy of the people," Trump is trying to discredit one of the few institutions that holds politicians and the 1% accountable.

Men such as Trump, Thiel and Adelson appear to believe that their money and power give them a pass from scrutiny -- that they are above the law. And it is the job of the press to let them know they can't do what they feel like, that transparency is a key element of a successful democracy.

If we allow politicians to destroy the reputation of the press, if we allow the rich to litigate the media into bankruptcy, if we allow disgruntled billionaires to buy media they don't like because of the coverage about them, and if we allow the government to be run in secret, then we will be on the dark road to a society with no transparency, in which all the news is controlled by the government or a few wealthy individuals with a nondemocratic agenda. Like Russia. Or Turkey. Or any of dozens of countries with state-controlled media.

Sure, the mainstream media aren't perfect. They make mistakes and sometimes takes sides when they shouldn't. Criticize the press if you must, but don't let billionaire bullies try to shut it down or let politicians do their business away from the scrutiny of the press.

There's a quote by Jefferson at the end of "Nobody Speak" that deals with this very succinctly: "Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost."


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