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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. What is the future for free press and speech in the Trump administration? Joining me today to consider is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Joel Simon. His organization is on the front lines of defending press freedom here at home and around the globe. At the helm of the CPJ since 2006, and previously a freelance journalist in Latin America, Simon has led its expansion, helping to launch the global campaign against impunity, establish a journalist assistance program, and spearhead a dedicated technology arm. At CPJ’s 2016 International Press Freedom Awards, accepting a lifetime achievement prize, CNN veteran international correspondent Christiane Amanpour delivered a stirring acceptance speech. “Journalism faces an existential crisis, a threat to the very relevance of our profession. We must also fight against a post-values world, being truthful, not neutral.” Amanpour further cited that social media and fake news has undermined democracy in America, so I must ask Joel to begin how he would characterize the chilling effect on the Fourth Estate since election day. And there is an upside to that too.
SIMON: Well I think that really the tone was set during the campaign, the, the Trump campaign, you know, and I, and I think that he, it’s not uncommon for politicians to run campaigns against the press, that’s, that’s, that’s something we’ve seen many times before. But Trump took the vilification of the media to a completely different level. Um, the hostility, the systematic calling out, the calling out of individual journalists, this resulted in a flurry of um, online harassment, of trolling of journalists. He’s threatened to sue journalists, to make it easier to sue journalists so um, it was a campaign of, of unrelenting hostility towards the media and I think that has made the media very anxious about what is coming next.
HEFFNER: There was an extent, an uncomfortable degree to which Trump was maligning journalists…
HEFFNER: In the way that you might cast aside an opponent. In fact the fervor with which his supporters openly criticized the media was in some instances more ferocious than his, their criticism of his opponent.
SIMON: Yeah well that’s, again if, you know, one way of thinking about that is to look at it globally. And running campaigns against the media as an institution that represents the interests of the entrenched elites, that is a electoral practice that you see in many parts of the world that are less democratic. Hugo Chavez for example, that was, that was absolutely central to his campaign and you know, even Putin, President Putin of Russia, uh, uh, Erdogan in Turkey, these are all leaders who have run electoral campaigns and won electoral campaigns where they really focused on the media and their critique of the media, which is one that Trump has also embraced, is that it represents a sort of elite, entrenched interests and not uh, a kind of objective, neutral search for truth.
HEFFNER: And Christiane’s response to that at your gala was that that is a misreading of what’s actually happening.
SIMON: Well it’s, it’s dangerous, it’s dangerous, because you know, it’s, it’s valid to cr—criticize the media’s performance in this country or anywhere in the world, um, the, the media as an institution is flawed, uh, but so are, so is every institution inside government and outside government, but the role of media is central because it’s an independent, it’s, it has to be powerful enough to stand up to powerful, vested interests inside and outside the government and hold them to account. And that’s a danger—it doesn’t always perform that role perfectly but it has to be given the opportunity to do it, and creating an environment in which the media is harassed and vilified and threatened makes that process more difficult and that is true in this country and that is true everywhere in the world.
HEFFNER: But the danger arises in part, don’t you think Joel, from this idea of post-fact, post-values, post-democracy even, um, at the heart of her critique of American journalists was that there was a loss of focus. There was a false sense of balance, neutrality equivalency that gave voice to Trump’s electoral strategy that enabled him, in effect, Christiane’s own network until recently had been that bully pulpit, confusing those rallies for the truth. How do we work our way back from that endless B-roll and what already now in the beginning of his transition and administration is that same kind of post-factual soap opera of Shakespearean narrative?
SIMON: Yeah, well I mean I think, I think one challenge that we face is when people talk about “the media.” Everyone in their own mind has the con—a con—a different conception and the media is a, ha—really has to be an incredibly diverse, broad ecosystem that includes media that embraces those values, the ones you describe of you know, we are here to call the things as we see it, you know, we’re, we’re, we, we, we, we represent both sides but we call things as we see it and you can have like, partisan media as well. That’s part of, part of a broad and healthy media ecosystem. So they’re different roles for different kinds of media and of course the media has become much more diverse because new technologies have opened up this space. That is all something we need to sort out, it’s difficult to sort out. But what’s unhealthy, and what’s destructive, and what, what, what really concerns me, is that into this diverse and complex ecosystem, it’s very easy to inject false news. News that is, you know, is deliberately false, deliberately misleading. Um, it’s designed to confuse and demoralize people so that they, they don’t engage. And you know, there’s been a lot of discussion about, you know, the possibility that Russia’s involved in these efforts and, and certainly they are in some parts of the world, but let’s acknowledge that to a certain extent, some of this false news is coming from uh, our president-elect, right? I mean he’s, he’s, um, uh, tweeting out things that are simply not true. And so that is part of this complex ecosystem in which anyone can participate, everyone is the media, some of the information we get is important and accurate and helps create accountability, and some of it is false, and sorting that out is incredibly difficult and complex.
HEFFNER: We’ve spoken over the course of the campaign about a Murrow moment…
HEFFNER: Not every story has a multiplicity of sides or even two sides…
HEFFNER: And that’s Christiane’s point.
HEFFNER: But I think what she is not necessarily recognizing, and I want to hear your blueprint for the journalistic future here, and the toolkit that we ought to be focused on to protect journalism in this country is, is the fact that there were deep investigations of the President-elect’s career…
HEFFNER: That did not really result in changes in public opinion.
SIMON: First let’s talk about what the challenges the media face as an institution. There, there’s never going to be another Murrow moment, because the reason you had a Murrow moment is you had a handful of journalists, whether they were Murrow of Cronkite or Tom Brokaw in his day that everybody watched and everyone paid attention to and they had this platform and they could make a pronouncement, like you know, Cronkite expressing, um, his opposition to the Vietnam War, which remember, was an editorial moment, um, everyone talks about impartiality but that was hardly impartial. Um, but all eyeballs were on Walter Cronkite, or on Edward R. Murrow. Now the media is fractured. It’s obviously fractured. It’s diverse. We’ve just, you know, we just talked about so there’s no single individual program, network that has the capability to mobilize public opinion in the same way. And um, you know, but you’re right, there’s, during the campaign there was a lot of very deep, informed investigative reporting that took place, that was, that was excellent but the, it didn’t reach audiences in the same way. And I, so but I think when you look at what the challenges are, are the challenges in the journalism itself or the delivery system?
HEFFNER: Or the, right.
SIMON: And I would say they’re more in the delivery system because there was excellent journalism but the way in which, the way in which people access that information, it’s more diverse and it’s more fractured. Now going back to your point about the language that Trump, Trump uses to criticize the media, which is, which is you know, something that, that’s potentially chilling, I do think it, it does echo the kinds of expressions you hear from authoritarian leaders in other parts of the world, without question that kind of systematic attack on you know, questioning of journalism as an institution, singling out of individual reporters, that intimidating kind of language, threats to change the legal environment, that really does send a chilling message.
HEFFNER: Well you talk about the protecting the integrity of the craft…
HEFFNER: But also acknowledging the responsibility of these not-so-third party vendors sometimes…
HEFFNER: Making money off of misinformation.
HEFFNER: I’ve called it the monetization of fraud in a lot of instances but let’s talk more intimately about the reputation…
HEFFNER: The reputation of journalists because the way in which we view the profession going forward is gonna be I think enormously influential in how the body politic does see us and as an example I wanted to, to mention this because the upside of that chilling effect that we, that may be imminent is public media have received an outpouring of support in, in dollars and morale…
HEFFNER: Since Donald Trump’s election. And I relate that, and I wonder if this is in your mind instrumental to your mission of protecting journalists, but I connect that to taking the money motive imperative out of the profession so that journalists can’t be accused of the kind of yellow journalism, um, and clickbait that has, that has fairly maligned the profession.
SIMON: Yeah I mean I, I think that people, you know, I think, I think you have to look at like the broader kind of uh, electorate, right? So there are many, many people in this country who are deeply passionate and committed to accessing independent information that professional journalists, uh, produce and who, in whom they have confidence to make informed judgments about what’s newsworthy and you know, provide the information they need. Those people are making personal investments in the media in which they believe, so public media is certainly an example of media that does this accountability journalism. But I, but how broadly, how deep that pool is, is everyone, you know, I mean putting their money there? I, I doubt it. And there are many people out there who, you know, don’t value that kind of, that kind of media and get their information from other sources, uh, who may be less informed news consumers, so they may not be even aware that they’re reading information that’s false and, and that’s misleading. So I, I think that there’s no question that the people who value this kind of information are doubling down on that investment, but the question I have is how broad a segment of the American public does that represent?
HEFFNER: Beyond subscribing to your local newspaper, and we’ve seen a surge too in the Washington Post and the New York Times subscription…
SIMON: Right. Which I would call national newspapers…
HEFFNER: Right, local too.
SIMON: But local newspapers are re—yeah.
HEFFNER: But beyond that, um, and valuing what has been the devaluation of this currency, this profession, what do you suggest is the most fundamental tool to protect journalists in this country right now?
SIMON: Well I think we can go back to what Christiane said. I mean I, I think that there are huge challenges, there’s an existential crisis, I absolutely agree with her. But journalists have to believe in their mission. They, they, they can’t be intimidated and, and I think having a global perspective on this issue right now is critical, you know, when at that same dinner where Christiane spoke, we honored journalists from Turkey who’d been in jail. We honored, uh, a journalist from Egypt who’s currently in jail and who we’re trying to, to win, uh, his freedom, a photographer. We honored a journalist from India who had been threatened. We honored a journalist from El Salvador who’d been threatened. Now these are people who believe so deeply in what they do as journalists that it’s valuable, that it matters, that they’re willing to risk their lives and liberty. American journalists at this point don’t face those kinds of challenges, but we have to have the same sort of confidence that what we do matters and, and, and sort of recommit to those values. At the same time, I think we have to stand up as an industry, as individual journalists when somebody like Trump in a position of power challenges the validity of what we do and says we’re failing and says, you know, we’re irrelevant, um, we have to, we have to not lose confidence and this is something I say, um, you know, not just to American journalists, and I think we’ve been talking a lot about American journalists, but there’s a, there’s a global media ecosystem that we’re a part of. We don’t exist in isolation. The, the work that journalists do in this country connects to the work that journalists do around the world. We share information. We’re part of a global information ecosystem called the internet. And so what journalists do in China, what journalists do in Russia, what journalists do in Mexico matters to us and what we do matters tremendously to them.
HEFFNER: We’ve heard in these last months this pretty constant refrain of don’t, we’re normalizing certain kinds of behavior here.
HEFFNER: And I would suggest that there is a new normal.
HEFFNER: And that normalization is a greater tolerance for the kind of totalitarian if magnanimous, um, leadership, that kind of clenched fist nativism that is globally the populist trend against the corporate elites.
SIMON: But I don’t think Americans are cynical about the value of free speech and press freedom and the First Amendment. I mean I think they still re—recognize that, that, that it’s an essential value, it’s a defining value. And so I think to the extent that, you know, our President-elect is um, attacking in, you know, the media as an institution, you know, there’s, there’s some sympathy for that, but I think when he starts suggesting that the, the, the um, uh, the right to express your ideas, whether as an individual or through the media, when he calls those values into question, I, I think pe—I think people, people will push back against that. But we have to also recognize that the, you know, the, the, the best hope we have for accountability in this new administration, you know, where we have a, uh, both houses of Congress controlled by the same party that controls the executive branch is real accountability journalism, is an independent Fourth Estate that holds the administration to account. I think there are many people in this country who really want the media to play that role, expect it to play the role, that role. Expect it to be pressured and threatened and, and face challenges, but to do its job. And I think we can take, again, looking at this globally, and I’m not comparing the challenges that, that journalists face in this country to the challenges that journalists face in, in countries like Turkey or like Russia, or, or China where you have, you know, authoritarian structures, um, but journalists, there stand up and fight because they believe so passionately that the role they play is instrumental, is, is, is essential. And, and I think that American journalists should take confidence, or take stock of the fact that so many journalists around the world are willing to take those risks because they so deeply believe, uh, in the ethos of, of this profession.
HEFFNER: Despite having arguably the most robust Fourth Estate on the planet, the most journalists, the most news bureaus, the advantage seems to be uh, right now in the hands of sort of the false news makers as opposed to the genuine truthtellers. And, and I think for advanced democracies, or what we thought of as advanced democracies, technology has more than any other factor led to the creation of this post-truth age.
SIMON: Yeah, no question. I mean the technology has so complicated, uh, the media environment, you know, on a global level, as I said, we’ve created a kind of unified information ecosystem, a glo—a shared global resource which you know, everyone’s got access if they have a free and open internet to the same information as anyone else anywhere else in the world. And of course there are many governments that are threatened by this that seek to restrict, uh, access to the internet, China foremost among them which has constructed, uh, you know, what’s called the great firewall and limits access. Uh, but, but many countries around the world are emulating that model and seeking to assert a sovereignty over the information space within their own borders. Of course there’s, the technology has disrupted the economic model, so these institutions, uh, which were, you know, once strong and robust, are now uh, less strong and less robust, less economically secure. Um, then you have what, what some people refer to as disintermediation which means that you know, anyone can, can essentially, um, speak to the public, whether it’s a presidential candidate or uh, a terrorist organization like the Islamic State by using, um, this new technology, and so journalists who were once essential, uh, to communicating to a mass audience are less essential and in places like Syria and Mexico where there are criminal organizations and, and, and terrorist organizations, journalists who were once sort of intermediaries through which information was conveyed, they’re now targets. They’re now targets. They’re being hunted down and killed, they’re being killed in record numbers. Um, and the final point I’ll make about technology is that it, and the way it’s transformed information is that it’s so incredibly powerful and disruptive and we’ve seen that take place in you know, the color revolutions that took place in, in Eastern Europe and the, the Arab Spring, that governments are deeply aware of what, what the threat posed by i—independent information.
SIMON: And that’s why they’re cracking down. And that’s why we’re also seeing record numbers of journalists being jailed around the world. So it’s a very complex, uh, pivotal moment for global information, uh, and the challenges ahead of us are, are, are very significant.
HEFFNER: What can we learn from the experience of journalists who don’t live in the same free society that we do in navigating this particular moment?
SIMON: You know, I, I think that there, there are, there’s the, there’s the complex answer and the easy answer. And I, I’m going to give the easy answer, which is, which is to reinforce a point I’ve already made, which is that journalism matters. Independent information, uh, reported through a kind of painstaking process of verification, uh, expressing opinions based on a for—informed analysis, contributing to a lively and robust public debate, demanding accountability from those in power, um, those are essential roles that journalists and the media as an institution must perform. And right now there is a feeling of demoralization of are we irrelevant, does this matter? Are people listening to us, are people hearing us, and, and I understand why people are asking those questions, but the essential thing that journalist ha—have to remember is not to lose faith, not to lose confidence, to keep doing this kind of reporting and that’s what I see when I look around the world. I mean I don’t, I don’t think those of us who care about independent media, those of us who care about free expression, those of us who care about press freedom, I don’t think we’re winning the battle right now. I think, I think we’re losing.
HEFFNER: What will it take for us to win?
SIMON: Well I mean I think, I think if you look, I, I think that the fundamental, the first step is this, this recommitment, but then we have to sort of fight this battle at every level. So we have to fight for the technology that we need to distribute independent information, because there are powerful forces globally that are pushing against this technology that are using it for surveillance, that are using it to track critical expression, that are using it to control and manipulate and censor information, to disseminate propaganda, so we have to fight to control that technology. We have to fight against, um, what I call the democratators, which are elected autocrats who hide their repression behind democratic norms, so they win elections, they uh, cite the rule of law, they express rhetorical support for independent media, I put um, uh, Erdogan and Putin and the late Hugo Chavez clearly in this camp. You could call Orban of Hungary uh, also a me—there are many, there are many examples, so we need to fight against those tendencies. Um, and, and, and I think finally we need to fight against the most pressing threats to journalists’ safety, which is the targeting of individual journalists and impunity in those crimes. We need to create a culture of safety around the world. Journalists are being killed in record numbers. They’re being killed by actors like terrorists and criminal groups that are impervious to tra—traditional advocacy. So another step we need to take is to really create a culture of safety where journalists, freelancers, local journalists, everyone who’s part of this community, uh, have the tools that they need to do their job safely. We’re actually committed to doing that at CPJ, we’ve created a new emergencies response team and hired a safety specialist to oversee this kind of work, so those are concrete, um, attainable steps that we can take, uh, to keep information flowing, and, and that’s, and that’s the priority right now.
HEFFNER: And, and in the last thirty seconds, flowing and factual too, because free press, it’s one thing to have a creative novel, but our…
HEFFNER: Our, our politics seems much more fictional than…
SIMON: I, I think, I think we almost need to take it into, we have to create the environment for factual accountability journalism to thrive, and that means an environment, a global environment for free expression. We have to accept that in that environment, there will be information that’s not factual, that’s distorting, but we need to first create that environment and then once that environment is created and sustained, then we need to fight within that environment to produce the kind of journalism that matters to us.
HEFFNER: Joel, we could do a whole, another half hour on distinguishing between free expression and free press, because I think that will get at the heart of this post-factual question too…
HEFFNER: But we don’t have the time to do that now. Nonetheless, thank you for delving into these matters with me today.
SIMON: It’s been a pleasure, thank you so much for having me on.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit the Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews, and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.