WASHINGTON -- How do we square these two scenes from the weekend?
On Saturday night, Washington journalists hobnobbed with politicians and celebrities at the black-tie White House Correspondents’ Association dinner -- and then spent Sunday arguing about whether comedian Michelle Wolf was too harsh toward President Trump, who uses his presidential pulpit to mock the journalists.
Late Sunday night, Washington time, nine journalists in Kabul were among at least 29 people killed in suicide bombing attacks. That brings to 24 the number of journalists killed worldwide so far this year, following 46 last year -- a year that also saw a record high of 262 journalists jailed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
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This ugly juxtaposition ought to shame Washington media. It isn’t just about the dinner, though that spectacle needs to be replaced with something appropriate for this grim time in our profession. What’s needed is a change in the way we think of ourselves as journalists.
Journalists are, with good reason, resistant to the role of advocate. But at a time when Trump is leading a successful movement to discredit the free press at home, advocating the First Amendment isn’t a conflict of interest. And at a time when the Trump administration is helping autocrats undermine journalists around the world, campaigning for our jailed and murdered brethren doesn’t compromise our journalistic independence.
On May 3 of last year -- World Press Freedom Day -- the U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, gave a speech announcing that freedom and human rights may be “our values” but they are “not our policies.” He continued: “If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value, * it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”
As the president attacks the press as the “fake news media” and the “enemy of the American people,” so far this year, two journalists in the United States have been arrested, eight have been attacked and nine have received subpoenas. The Trump administration has charged two people for leaking under the 1917 Espionage Act.
As U.S. officials have stopped protesting the abuse of journalists abroad, strongmen around the world have accelerated a crackdown on journalists as “terrorists.” Last year, six countries imprisoned journalists for promulgating “fake news,” compared with only two countries in 2016, the CPJ reports. Trump has had friendly words for the leaders of Turkey, China and Egypt -- the world’s top three jailers of journalists.
A report last week by Reporters Without Borders outlines the “growing animosity towards journalists” worldwide: the president of the Philippines saying journalists “are not exempted from assassination,” the president of the Czech Republic attending a news conference with a fake Kalashnikov inscribed “for journalists,” Slovakia’s prime minister calling journalists “filthy anti-Slovak prostitutes.” As murders of journalists predictably swell, the killers go free in nine out of 10 cases.
Against this gruesome backdrop, the White House Correspondents’ Association recognizes its chummy dinner is an anachronism. My friend Margaret Talev, the association’s president, used her speech on Saturday to mention Austin Tice, an American journalist held in Syria. Olivier Knox, the incoming president, has said he wants to make the dinner “boring.”
How about better than boring? Move the dinner back a week, to honor World Press Freedom Day, and cancel the comedians. Instead, read the names of journalists killed doing their jobs over the year; people such as Daphne Caruana Galizia, who reported on government corruption in Malta, killed on Oct. 16, when the car she was driving exploded; and Miroslava Breach Velducea, who reported on politics and crime in Mexico, shot eight times and killed on March 23, 2017, when leaving her home with one of her children. Also, read the names of some jailed journalists and their time behind bars: Turkey’s Zehra Dogan, 323 days; Egypt’s Alaa Abdel Fattah, 1,282 days; China’s Ding Lingjie, 221 days; Kyrgyzstan’s Azimjon Askarov, 2,877 days; Congo’s Ghys Fortuné Dombé Bemba, 475 days.
Media companies and personalities, instead of hosting glitzy parties, would make contributions to and solicit funds for groups that protect the free press. And they would pledge to devote more air time and column inches to exposing abuses of press freedoms at home and abroad. The Washington Post did this, successfully, during my colleague Jason Rezaian’s imprisonment in Iran. We should all pledge to be unabashed advocates: to shine light on the journalists languishing in prisons, the unsolved murders of journalists and the erosion of press freedom at home.
Maybe Trump would boycott and ridicule such an event. Fine. It will be clear to everyone exactly where he stands -- and where we do.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.