Ramped up rhetoric in the heated 2016 campaign for the U.S. presidency has notably taken a turn. Journalists, fact-based filmmakers and the public at large who care about the First Amendment and the impact future leaders have on public discourse, should take notice.
Generally speaking, candidates and presidents have contentious relationships with the media. President Obama banned the FOX News network from White House television sets when he took office and we’ve all seen presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s notorious affinity for rope corralling the press corps at her rallies. While a level of angst is expected, there is a fine line and those are just a couple of examples that butt right up to it. Yet, it’s the recent pronouncement of a media blacklist by presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump that has taken media relations to a whole new level. The implications could have a chilling effect on free speech. Trump’s obvious disdain for “some members of the media” is not new or newsworthy. Verbal threats and banned access to public rallies and press conferences are. This flies in the face of the principles our country was founded on and inconsistent with Trump’s own free market views. The candidate who rarely says “no” to an interview and made a fortune using media as a platform, faced an immediate backlash. Defending the move as his right as a “private” citizen, it’s not the first time Trump served notice and signaled his intentions as president to silence reporters he’s at odds with. Sorry to be the spoiler, but government censorship, like overreach, has no place in a democratic society. Scrutiny comes with the territory.
We know why the United States is not run like an authoritarian government. Countries like North Korea is where threats of harming and silencing journalists, controlling and decapitating coverage the government doesn’t like, is commonplace. As a correspondent and documentarian covering U.S.-Africa relations, I’ve interviewed State department officials calling out countries who do this kind of thing, on a routine basis. As they should. ‘Reporters Without Borders’ recently issued a troubling report that notes “a deep and disturbing decline in respect for media freedom globally.” One reason for this decline? “Growing self-censorship” by foreign governments. It goes without saying, there is no room for a free market presidency to lend itself to any hint of press suppression.
From a press perspective, like some journalists, I have personally been bullied, physically threatened and banned from covering press conferences – just ask convicted Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. From an operative-spokesperson perspective, I have dealt with my share of truth-challenged reporters and columnists with little regard for facts or who they drag through the mud as long as they gain some fleeting recognition. Neither scenario is acceptable. But the latter does not justify the former’s actions. The American system ensures a place for diverse voices, viewpoints and a myriad of media coverage whether a public office-holder likes it or not. Those liberties are not to be trifled with. The further we get from protecting these rights the closer we get to what looks more like state sanctioned media and what follows for the general public after that. It is because of the press that government corruption, abuse, and mismanagement is uncovered and what taxpaying citizens have come to expect. While reporters aren’t supposed to be activists they are advocates for the public at large, and a necessary voice as part of our system of checks-and-balances. It’s what politicians sign up for when they ask the public to trust them with their vote. And what we teach each generation.
Freedom of the press is as inherent a right as the right to bear arms. Those who place a high value on civil liberties and a free market system must resoundingly reject any notion that upends the underlying premise of that basic human right. Candidates vying for our country’s highest office are on notice – the bar is high. So, 1) stop with the threats, theatrics, and antics aimed at intimidating the press; 2) pledge to preserve Constitutionally-protected free market First Amendment freedoms; 3) and make transparency a hallmark, not a soundbite.
For members of the media, the highest degree of journalistic integrity should always rule the day.