In how they cover President Donald Trump, our most vaunted media outlets have too often lost their way, and Trump responds accordingly. His honest, angry and dismissive retorts to journalists who he knows are his enemies are not attacks on journalism, but on those who abuse journalistic privileges to carry out personal political agendas.
Trump recently told Fox News’ Chris Wallace: “Nobody believes in the First Amendment more than I do … I’m totally in favor of the media, I’m totally in favor of (a) free press.” It is not incongruous to hold that view and still loathe a liberal media establishment seemingly bent on destroying his presidency.
But then comes the case of Jamal Khashoggi. More than anything Trump has ever said or done regarding the media, the president’s shameful response to the murder of the Saudi journalist reinforces his critics’ claims that he does not demonstrate a sufficient commitment to the right of free speech and dissent.
No, Khashoggi was not a U.S. citizen, although three of his children hold that distinction and he was a U.S. resident. Yes, Khashoggi’s murder is merely one of countless examples of violent acts and human rights abuses by Saudi Arabia that American presidents have historically ignored. Yes, Khashoggi’s writings sometimes defended groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, considered a terrorist group by many, and in the 1980s, he developed a relationship with Osama bin Laden, but he expressed no sympathy for extremism.
But none of that matters. If it stands for anything, the United States stands for the right of free expression everywhere, even opinion that seems wrong or objectionable.
Khashoggi was, by credible accounts, ambushed, tortured, strangled and dismembered in a Saudi consulate in Turkey — all because he spoke out against the Saudi government as a contributing columnist for The Washington Post and other outlets.
There has been too much focus, including by Trump, on whether the Saudi crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s murder — as the CIA reportedly concluded. All that matters is that the killing happened in a Saudi consulate in a clearly premeditated attack, and was then denied, covered up and called an accident before the Saudi government finally acknowledged it. Even if the crown prince didn’t order it, Trump must hold the Saudis accountable.
As much as news outlets such as The Post and the New York Times anger the president — sometimes with good cause — they are storied and revered institutions of American independence and freedom, unique in their journalistic history and lineage. As a contributing columnist for The Post, Khashoggi represented American journalism abroad at its highest level, flawed as it sometimes can be.
In this case, there is no legitimate balancing of economic benefit vs. moral leadership. There is only one message that should come from an American president: This cannot stand. No amount of lost deals, even ones worth billions of dollars; no danger of escalating oil prices; no worries of strategic alliances can outweigh the responsibility of the president of the United States to stand tall for a free press and freedom of speech everywhere. The only acceptable response is this: If a country retaliates with the torture and murder of a journalist representing a U.S. news outlet, there will be a steep price to pay.
“America first” is a Trumpian message well-regarded across much of the heartland and within Trump’s solid base. The president cited the theme among his reasons for giving Saudi Arabia a pass in Khashoggi’s murder. But in kowtowing to the Saudis, Trump seemed to indicate that U.S. success is dependent upon Saudi largesse, hardly a message conveying American strength.
Just a week ago, I had the privilege of speaking with graduate students at the Columbia Journalism School in New York. As I often do when addressing students in various settings, I defended many of Trump’s attacks on journalists whose personal politics lead to biased reporting on this president. Were I to be in front of those students today, I could make no excuse for the president’s lame response to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In his Fox News interview with Wallace, Trump said he has not listened to the audio recording of Khashoggi’s brutal murder. He said he was advised against hearing it, because it was a disturbing “suffering” tape.
Listen to the recording, Mr. President. Listen to the recording. And when you hear it, remember, this was not merely an attack on a Saudi dissident for political reprisal. This was an attack on journalism itself, a vivid demonstration of what some nations would do to the very concept of a free and independent press — torture it, kill it, dismember it.
Trump often, understandably, demonstrates disdain for a news media dominated by a liberal mindset that despises him and what he stands for. But he cannot allow his scorn for organizations — even those that sometimes abuse their journalistic platforms — to diminish the ideal of journalism itself, which remains both the bedrock of a free and informed society, as well as one of the most important foundations of democracy. That is what he must defend and protect in the tragic case of Jamal Khashoggi.
Gary Abernathy is a freelance writer and former newspaper editor based in Hillsboro, Ohio.