Courtney: The war on journalism

The Fourth Estate is crucial to our democracy. We need to do more to ensure it prevails.


by Zach Courtney

Throughout history, public figures have declared war on plenty of concepts — some righteous, others not so much. Richard Nixon declared war on drugs. LBJ declared war on poverty. George W. Bush declared war on terror. Andrew Yang wrote a book titled, “The War on Normal People.” 

As Israeli forces in Palestine recently killed Shireen Abu Akleh, an Al Jazeera journalist, it appears we need to add to this list: governments across the globe are waging a war on journalism. 

This war has been ongoing. Almost exactly a year ago, Israeli forces bombed the Associated Press building in Palestine. Though they claimed there was a Hamas presence in the building, there has yet to be evidence to support this claim. Israeli forces have killed at least 45 journalists since 2000, according to Al Jazeera. 

Israelis aren’t the only people killing journalists. Jamal Khashoggi — an American resident that worked for the Washington Post — was killed in 2018 by the Saudi government, at the direction of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to CIA intelligence. What did the American government do in response to these journalists being killed? 

I would say the American government has done nothing, but we’ve also done worse than nothing. 

In 2016, the Obama administration reached a Memorandum of Understanding with Israel, in which the U.S. agreed to provide Israel with $38 billion in aid over ten years ($3.8 billion per year) that goes mostly to their military. From 2009 to 2016, the Obama administration provided Israel with $23.5 billion in military aid. 

In addition, President Biden is set to meet with Salman within the next month, as he hopes to talk the Saudi’s de facto ruler into pumping more oil to bring down the rising prices that Americans face at the pump. 

The war on journalism isn’t only being fought overseas by autocrats whose citizens have no say in what happens in their country. The American government is complicit in these foreign crimes. It’s happening right here, too, where we supposedly value and are protected by the First Amendment. 

Former NSA employee Edward Snowden, known for whistleblowing on the NSA’s unconstitutional spying on American citizens since 9/11, has been forced out of the United States ever since because he would be jailed here under the Espionage Act. Though crimes may have technically been committed by Snowden, it is clear he did the morally right thing. Though Snowden was not a journalist himself, his whistleblowing was journalistic in nature, and his actions should be applauded by Americans, not criminalized.

Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, is likely to be extradited to the U.S. to face charges for the crime of publishing U.S. intelligence leaks that exposed the lies behind the United States’ wars in the Middle East. 

While the U.S. government aims to criminalize heroic journalism and government criticism, journalism is struggling at home and abroad. Over the past five years, UNESCO estimates that 85% of the world’s population has experienced a decline in press freedom. Since 2004 in the U.S., there has been a 57% decline in newspaper newsroom employees — from 71,640 to 30,820 — and 1,800 newspapers have closed.

This is bad for democracy. As the local newspaper closes, voters are forced to turn to more polarizing cable news channels like CNN, MSNBC and Fox News to get their news. 

This hasn’t always been the case. As a nation, we used to take pride in and defend the constitutional protections provided by the First Amendment. The unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan, a landmark First Amendment decision written by Justice William Brennan, puts it quite elegantly:

“Thus we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open and that it may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

Though this is in response to a case on libel law from 1964, it is a value that should remain today. Not just in the United States, but across the globe. There is plenty we can — and should — do as Americans to be on the right side of the war on journalism. 

  1. First, you can subscribe to your local newspaper. When people criticize the media, they’re often talking about cable news — CNN, MSNBC and Fox News being the big three. They aren’t talking about local newspapers, which polling suggests have high trust among the public. Local newspapers do a great job of covering stories in the community. They help keep people informed, and they provide a much-needed check on local government. A great way to make sure these local newspapers stay afloat is by subscribing to (and reading) the paper on a regular basis. 
  2. We need to push Congress and our state legislature to do more to bolster local newspapers, too. Congress passing the Local Journalism Sustainability Act would be a great start. 
  3. There are things President Biden can do through the powers of the executive, too. He can end the push to extradite Julian Assange, and he can pardon Edward Snowden. 

To close, I’ll say this. My favorite TV show is “The Newsroom.” The show’s (fictional) executive producer, MacKenzie McHale, put it best: “There is nothing more important to a democracy than a well-informed electorate.” 

To protect the future of democracy, both at home and abroad, and to ensure a well-informed electorate, we need good journalism. This means the war on journalism — both at home and abroad — needs to end now.