Everybody wants to be a snowflake, now including even newspapermen. There’s nothing inherently wrong with something called “World Press Freedom Day,” but journalism has always been a contact sport. That’s what made freedom of the press one of the best ideas the Founding Fathers ever came up with.
The United Nations keeps official track of important events such as World Environment Day, International Literacy Day and World Suicide Prevention Day, and 25 years ago added World Press Freedom Day to the calendar.
But many journalists, as grandees of press, tube and algorithm call themselves now that “reporter” is no longer a word large enough to call scribblers of the news trade, equate press criticism with actual threats of harm.
Mexican reporters have been killed by assassins of drug cartels, Russian reporters have died under suspicious circumstances and a reporter in Siberia who had been writing about military corruption was killed when he was pushed from a fifth-floor hotel balcony. In Afghanistan 10 reporters were killed in a single day.
So far, reporters in America have suffered no punishment greater than being sent to the dinner of the White House Correspondents’ Association, and you might think the grandees of the media would be grateful, except that gratitude has small currency in our present day.
Naturally, the villain of World Press Freedom Day this year is Donald Trump. “The White House deplored the Afghanistan attacks as ‘a senseless and heinous act,’” wrote columnist Patt Morrison in the Los Angeles Times, “and yet the Trump administration has wrought its own kind of damage on the principles of a free press here and, by echo effect, around the world.”
And of course this: “When President Trump called the American news media ‘the enemy of the people,’ he revived a phrase beloved of Stalin, Lenin and Hitler’s chief propaganda thug, Joseph Goebbels, who used it to describe Jews. Trump’s ‘fake news’ insult has been taken up by other leaders as a stick to beat their own nations’ journalists.”
Everybody wants to be an abused journalist, if he can take his abuse at a safe distance. David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, told of his heroism in The New York Times. “The most prominent public-relations officer in Pittsburgh,” he recalled, “told us that a perfectly benign, and completely accurate, report on his institution’s activities was another example of fake news.” (That’s why they call western Pennsylvania “Pyongyang on the Three Rivers,” where no executive editor is safe from a press agent with a beef.)
World Press Freedom Day was the occasion this week for counting up the Goebbels-like assaults on the press in America. Everyone wanted to tell a war story. Donald Trump once called a “news host” at NBC-TV “a SOB,” and exhorted crowds (which needed little exhorting) to a frenzy about “the disgusting press.” Katy Tur, a correspondent for the network, felt insulted when the Donald called her “dishonest little Katy,” and asked a Secret Service agent to escort her from a rally. She wrote a book about it.
Such things happen to scribblers and talkers, and such things are not nice. No one should feel threatened. A reporter for The Washington Times, assigned to cover the late Geraldine Ferraro’s 1984 campaign as the running mate of Walter Mondale, wrote a story that so angered Miss Ferraro that she evicted the reporter from her campaign plane and left her at the side of the runway at an airport in a small town in Ohio, standing huddled in the rain as night fell. The reporter caught a cold, got her story, but she didn’t write a book about it.
The real crisis in journalism is that so many reporters and their editors want to be part of the story. They’ve forgotten the who, what, why, when, where and how that were once required answers in every story. Now they sometimes confuse the story with commentary they just can’t stifle. Readers know it, and don’t like it.
A trade organization called Reporters Without Borders issued its annual World Press Freedom Index the other day, ranking the nations of the world by their commitment to a free press, and decrying “growing animosity towards journalists” and “a climate of hatred,” notably in the United States, which it ranked 45th in the world as committed to freedom of the press, only one rank above Haiti. Everyone recognizes this as silly.
It’s harmless enough for editors and reporters to get together and hand out awards to each other, and talk about how hard their jobs are, but the reader or viewer doesn’t care about that. Nearly everybody has a job with hard days. That was once drilled into the hard heads of every new man and woman in the newsroom. No snowflakes, no whistling allowed, and no crying in journalism. Not ever.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.