While Americans were watching the messy reality that is our democracy – loud interruptions and protests in Cleveland and Philadelphia at the national political conventions – a fellow member of NATO issued warrants for the arrest of at least 88 journalists and other media figures.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has kept a running tally of an ongoing crackdown on journalists and freedom of the press in Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the aftermath of a failed coup and Parliament approval of a state of emergency, Reuters reported that 131 media outlets had been ordered closed and Amnesty International decried a “draconian clampdown on freedom of expression.”
In Turkey, it is a crime to insult Erdogan. Can you imagine living in a country that considers it a crime to criticize those in power? Late-night television would need some serious rethinking of its daily fodder. So would newspaper editorial writers and cartoonists and many, many of the rest of us.
We have the First Amendment to protect every snarky comment, every political disagreement, every Tweet or blog post, even every protest that mainstream America thinks is vile. (I’m thinking of the neo-Nazi protest a few weeks back at Capitol Park.)
The safeguards within that amendment are clear: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Because of this vitally important piece of our Constitution, we saw protected activities in all their strident glory (and even obnoxiousness) in Cleveland and Philadelphia. Demonstrators in Cleveland were there to speak out about racism, or against Trump, or to make their views heard on issues from gun rights to religious liberty to immigration.
Even more showed up in Philadelphia, protesting police brutality, marching for immigrant rights and, for some of the Bernie supporters, making it clear they did not support their nominee. Hordes of journalists were there to report and record and tweet and blog post.
Our country is polarized about this year’s presidential candidates, and it showed. In Cleveland, some Republican delegates called for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to be thrown in prison. Protesters at the Democratic convention formed a fake wall with the message “Wall Off Trump.”
There were signs aplenty:
“Give Our Party Back #Never Hillary #Still Sanders:
“Shut down Trump and the RNC”
“Stop all Fracking now”
“Guns Save Lives”
Whether or not you agree with the thinking behind the noise is beside the point. Instead, revel in the fact that Americans are allowed to freely protest as long as they do it peacefully. And that journalists are free to cover it all, analyze the results, and even opine. The sometimes painful discord sets us apart from a country like Turkey. It, too, is a democracy. It, too, is one of 28 NATO countries, an organization sworn to safeguard the freedom and security of its members – and to promote democratic values. And it’s rounding up its journalists anyway.
U.S. journalists rely every day on the protections afforded us by the First Amendment as we work to watchdog politicians and the powerful, or simply report that day’s news to help citizens – and voters – be informed.
I don’t take that protection for granted. No one should. Ensuring freedom of the press, a constitutional right, should be a litmus test for our political leaders, too.
So how do the presidential candidates weigh in on this most important issue? In their words, or their behavior?
Donald Trump says that if he wins, the presidential election he will “open up” libel laws. In a sit-down earlier this year with The Washington Post’s editorial board, he clarified by saying “I don’t want to impede free press” and that he would not expand prior restraint against publications to allow stories to be shut down before they are published. But asked whether he would weaken the important, and well-established, legal standard requiring malice in a libel lawsuit, he said “Yeah, I think I would get a little bit away from malice without getting too totally away.” Trump was speaking from the perspective of his concerns about media coverage of him.
That’s what he said. What he’s done is bar reporters from access to his campaign when he is unhappy about coverage. Earlier this year, he took to Facebook to bar The Washington Post from his campaign after the newspaper published a headline he didn’t like. That pattern held true last week when a Post reporter was barred from a Wisconsin event for Trump vice presidential candidate Mike Pence. Reporters from companies as large as Univision to regional newspapers like The Des Moines Register have also been banned.
What about Clinton? When she took to Twitter to say “Trump has banished members of the press who have criticized him. Is there any doubt he would do the same as president?” the political press angrily tweeted back. Their widespread grievance? Clinton does not hold press conferences. As Ben Jacobs of The Guardian tweeted, “To be fair, at least he acknowledges we exist.”
Clinton and her staff have reminded reporters that she continues to do regular interviews, at least 300 this year by late May. A press conference, though, is an entirely different animal, and it works to the benefit of the public. Any reporter can ask any question at a press conference. Questions the public needs answered might not come up in an individual interview. For example, The Sacramento Bee did not get a chance to ask Gov. Jerry Brown about serious safety concerns with the new Bay Bridge – raised in a Bee investigation – until he held an unrelated press conference.
Tough questions and critical press coverage are part of living in a democracy that works. The First Amendment matters. Our political leaders should be showing that it matters to them, as well.