Guest Commentary

The global attack on journalism really targets democracy itself

Activists holding signs with the Time Magazine cover showing wives of two Reuters journalists stand during a rally to mark one year anniversary of their arrest, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018, in front of city hall in Yangon, Myanmar.
Activists holding signs with the Time Magazine cover showing wives of two Reuters journalists stand during a rally to mark one year anniversary of their arrest, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018, in front of city hall in Yangon, Myanmar. AP

This is a bittersweet season to be a journalist.

When someone recognizes the importance of the work you do and the role you play in society, as Time magazine did when it named some members of the media the magazine’s 2018 Persons of the Year, it’s hard not to feel a surge of vicarious pride.

For me, it lasted about 20 minutes, until one of the students here at the Missouri School of Journalism called with a question. “So what’s the lesson from this?” she asked. “How do we not end up like them?”

Leave it to a budding journalist to wreck the triumphalist mood with a damn good question.

Because of course I don’t want my students, or any of my colleagues, to share the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, butchered in a Saudi consulate. Or that of the five Capital Gazette employees gunned down in their Annapolis, Maryland newsroom. Or Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, incarcerated for exposing government wrongdoing in Myanmar. Or Maria Ressa, threatened with the same for doing the same in the Philippines.

The recognition that Time bestowed on these truth-tellers is not a cause for celebration. It’s an SOS.

As the geographic and demographic diversity of Time’s roster attests, the free flow of information is under threat everywhere, including in democracies where we for too long have taken it for granted.

Demagogues and despots are partly to blame. But a survey of the battle lines in what has become a global war on free expression can’t help but remind you of one of the most profound utterances of that great American philosopher, Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

On the day of Missouri’s primary election in August, for instance, a man accosted one of our student journalists while she was interviewing people at the polls. He accused her of being a purveyor of “fake news.” Then he spat at her.

The spittle aimed at our student, the bullets that killed the Capital Gazette employees, the hit men who murdered Khashoggi and the sham trials for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in Myanmar and Maria Ressa in the Philippines are all symptoms of a sweeping global change that, by threatening the free press that supports democracy, threatens democracy itself.

We live in a brave new media world where everyone with a smartphone can be a publisher, and where snarls and snark draw more clicks than facts.

In this environment, the biggest threat to press freedom is not the blunt and swift strangulation of censorship. Rather, it is a slow asphyxiation brought on by surfeit and cynicism.

Faced with so many media sources that they don’t know which ones to trust, some people decide to distrust them all. Or to trust only the ones that report what they already agree with.

Citizens of this digital world face a daunting — but potentially rewarding — challenge. Our moon shot will require us to go deep inside ourselves. To break free from the filter bubbles that personal bias and social media algorithms create for us. To separate fact from propaganda, to identify reliable sources and to distinguish fake news (the kind that has no relationship with verifiable facts) from fake fake news (the kind we call fake because it doesn’t square with our world view).

Journalists — real journalists — can help. Critical thinking and dispassionate analysis are what we do. But we need your support.

For those of you looking for a last-minute Christmas gift, I’ve got a suggestion: How about a subscription?

Kathy Kiely is the Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

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