By: Caitlin Brown
“Truth and understanding, are not such wares as to be monopolized and traded in by tickets and statutes, and standards.” John Milton
Free press won a monumental battle when, in 1733, New York newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger was acquitted of charges of libel by asserting that the articles he printed about the colonial governor were critical, but based in truth. Then, the acquittal served as a turning point, signaling the protection of free press, even when those in power were unhappy with their media depictions.
Now, the acquittal should serve as a reminder of the sacrifices that have been made to protect the liberty of a free press, especially as threats against this liberty have culminated in real attacks on media outlets. Today, CNN’s New York headquarters received pipe-bombs constructed using pyrotechnic powder and glass shrapnel. While some perceive the bomb-threats on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former President Barack Obama, former CIA Director John Brennan, former Attorney General Eric Holder, and liberal philanthropist George Soros as a leftist hoax to garner election pity, the bomb-threats are only an example of a months-long attack on the press and the ramifications that anti-press fearmongering has had. Only three months ago, Capital Gazette staffers became the tragic victims of a terrorist attack by Jarrod Ramos. Violence against journalists has become normalized over the last two years–as evidenced by the tepid White House response to Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s horrifying murder.
If providing weak mixed-messages about a slain journalist condones attacks against the media, the White House reaction to the CNN bomb-threats seems to celebrate this type of violence.
In a truly unifying move, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders took to twitter to denounce the real persecutor in the CNN attacks: CNN itself. Sanders claimed that it was the media that “chose to attack and divide,” seeming to overlook the current administration’s efforts to undermine public trust in the media.
Just last week, Politico Magazine responded to the anti-press rhetoric used by Trump. In “Trump’s Attacks on the Press Are Illegal. We’re Suing,” the media outlet argues that, while some verbal dismissals of the press are admissible given the First Amendment, “the first amendment does not cover everything.” The article states, “Although the president can launch verbal tirades against the press, he cannot use the powers of his office to suppress or punish speech he doesn’t like.” Last year in July, the president tweeted a gif that showed him physically assaulting a man labelled with the CNN logo. While public condolences and condemnations of violence seem nice, doesn’t this type of rhetoric serve as a prelude–as an invitation–to the type of real attacks that we’re now witnessing?
A targeted and persecuted press is a defining characteristic of developing countries–the countries with the greatest number of journalist deaths between 1990 and 2017 were Iraq, the Philippines, Mexico, Pakistan, and Russia, according to research conducted by the International Federation of Journalists. Frighteningly, journalists are dying less as a result of being caught in the crossfire and more because of their choice of profession. While it’s true that the public can and should hold the fourth estate to high standards, the remedy for a problematic press is not naming them the “enemy of the people,” or, as some more seriously misguided fanatics would advocate, sending pipe-bombs.