The United States is now “problematic.” Although this conclusion might refer to a variety of suboptimal conditions, the international journalistic advocacy organization Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières) applied it to the way in which Americans treat members of the Fourth Estate. In this year’s index of press freedoms, the United States has fallen to 48 out of 180 nations when it comes to freedom of the press.
“Never before have US journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection,” RSF’s press release read. American reporters operate in a “hostile climate” that owes much to the president’s anti-media antagonism. “President Donald J. Trump’s presidency has fostered further decline in journalists’ right to report,” America’s ignominious profile read. Reporters are subject to arrest or even “physical assault” just for doing their jobs. By way of examples to support this conclusion, however, RSF relies primarily on the murder of four journalists at the Capital Gazette in Maryland last year. “The gunman had repeatedly expressed his hatred for the paper on social networks before ultimately acting on his words,” the organization revealed.
This mass murder was an atrocity, but to imply that it was a product of a general hatred of reporters percolating in the political atmosphere is a gross injustice. The attacker nursed a grudge against this particular paper—not journalists as a professional class—for six years following the 2011 publication of an article involving a criminal-harassment case against him. An earlier RFS study on America’s dangerous climate for reporters noted that two other reporters also died while on the job, but they were killed when they were hit by a falling tree while covering a storm in North Carolina. For this, America ranked along with Syria, Afghanistan, and Mexico as among the most dangerous places in the world to be a reporter. If journalists honestly believed conditions in America are equal to those that prevail in two war zones and a state teetering on the brink of implosion, journalists have far bigger problems than a “climate of fear.”
So, what of the nations that now outrank the United States? According to RFS, you’re freer practicing journalism in places like Jamaica, Surinam, Ghana, Namibia, South Africa, Ghana, Cyprus, Papua New Guinea, Botswana, and Tonga than you are in America. But a cursory glance at these countries profiles puts the lie to this assertion. Namibia’s intelligence apparatus is busy criminalizing independent reporting while the state patronizes and prioritizes government media. In late 2017, the Samoan parliament passed a law giving its prime minister license to “attack journalists who dared to criticize members of his government.” In the bifurcated island nation of Cyprus, a haven for criminality and money laundering, the state places restrictions on the capacity to report historic facts and use geographic names it deems inconvenient. “[S]elf-censorship is on the rise and many media outlets are regarded as Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s mouthpieces,” read RSF’s dispatch from Papua New Guinea. And all of Botswana’s major television, radio, and print media are owned by the state and controlled by the government. These are today’s havens of journalistic freedom?
As is so often the case with non-profit listicles like these, no one reads beyond the headline. The perception that America under Trump has become a stultified wasteland of oppression and ignorance confirms the pernicious biases of too many reporters, many of whom already see their mission in world-historic terms. But it takes a special lack of journalistic curiosity to accept RFS’s premise at face value, which is what so many reportorial institutions did. In that sense, the threat to the institution of journalism is real and growing, but it’s not coming from Donald Trump. Journalism’s enemy is hubris, and the threat is growing by the day.