The Concentric Circles of Press Threats in America

From a story on by Jon Allsop headlined “The concentric circles of press threats in America”:

Last month, Seth Stern, of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, wrote an op-ed for the Asheville Citizen-Times, in North Carolina, raising the alarm about an imminent trial in the city that had mostly slipped under the radar of the national press: that of Veronica Coit and Matilda Bliss, two reporters with the Asheville Blade, another outlet in the city, who were arrested on Christmas Day in 2021 while covering the police clearing of a homeless encampment. They were charged with trespassing; Bliss’s phone was also seized. “Authoritarian regimes often put journalists on trial for doing their jobs, but it’s rare in the United States,” Stern wrote. “It seems like the sole purpose of these charges is to send a message to the journalists who told Asheville residents how their police department chose to spread Christmas cheer.”

If journalists going on trial for doing their jobs is rare in the US—Stern, citing the US Press Freedom Tracker, reported that it has happened only three times since 2018—threats to the press, more broadly, are relatively common, as a number of recent incidents have shown. Some of these have involved detentions of journalists, even if they didn’t end up at trial. Around the time that Stern wrote about the Asheville case, one such detention—also over a holiday period, but on the other side of the country—had just sparked more widespread outrage. Over Thanksgiving last year, police in Phoenix detained Dion Rabouin, a finance reporter at the Wall Street Journal, while he was attempting to interview customers outside a branch of Chase Bank; the detention came to light in January after ABC15, a local TV station, reported on it. Like Coit and Bliss, Rabouin was accused of trespassing, though unlike with Coit and Bliss, no charges ensued. Police freed Rabouin, but not before violently handcuffing him and forcing him to sit in a police vehicle. “The incident in Phoenix wasn’t the first time I’ve been harassed and/or detained by the police for seemingly no reason. It’s just the first time anyone has taken notice,” Rabouin, who is Black, wrote. “This time, the bank that called the police on me has called to apologize, and the mayor of the city where it happened has emailed me personally to apologize and assure me that a full investigation is happening. But I’ve been dealing with this my entire life.”

In addition to Rabouin’s detention, fifteen journalists were arrested in the US last year, according to the Press Freedom Tracker. At least two have been arrested so far this year, and it’s only mid-February. Per the Tracker, Maggie Brown, a reporter at the Post and Courier, in South Carolina, was arrested while attending a meeting on tribal lands last month; she, too, was charged with trespassing. Then, ten days ago, Evan Lambert, a correspondent for the cable network NewsNation, was reporting live from a press conference with Mike DeWine, the governor of Ohio, about a train derailment in the state when local law enforcement told Lambert that he was “out of line for talking when the governor was talking,” took him into a corridor, put him on the ground, and arrested him. He, too, was charged with trespassing, as well as with resisting arrest. Last week, Dave Yost, Ohio’s attorney general, dropped the charges. Afterward, Lambert wrote on Twitter that he was “still processing what was a traumatic event for me, in the context of a time where we are hyper aware of how frequently some police interactions with people of color can end in much worse circumstances. That is not lost on me.”

Threats to journalists in the US don’t just derive from aggressive policing, of course. In an extreme case last year, Jeff German, an investigative reporter at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, was found dead outside his home; a local official about whom German had written was later charged with his murder. Often, the threats are much subtler than that. Last week, David Folkenflik, NPR’s media correspondent, reported on a pattern of political meddling at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, that state’s NPR affiliate, which recently ousted a part-time reporter after officials savaged her coverage of abuse in state-run care facilities. WVPR denied firing the reporter or any political interference, but interviews with twenty sources suggested to Folkenflik that the reporter’s ouster “was not an aberration but part of a years-long pattern of mounting pressure on the station from Gov. Jim Justice’s administration and some state legislators.” Justice once sought to eliminate state funding to WVPR. Per Folkenflik, Justice has also “appointed partisans hostile to public broadcasting to key oversight positions.”

Two years from now, Justice, a Republican (these days), could be a US senator; he’s reportedly considering a run against Joe Manchin, the Democratic West Virginia incumbent, and recent polling suggests that he’d be well placed to win if he does. If Justice does enter the Senate, he’ll (presumably) serve alongside Bill Cassidy, the Republican Louisiana senator who, earlier this year, reintroduced a bill that would criminalize leaks from inside the Supreme Court, a reaction to a Court probe into how Politico obtained the draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade last year. And Justice might serve under the second presidency of Donald Trump, who, in response to the same Court leak probe last month, cleared even his high bar of repulsive anti-media rhetoric by suggesting that journalists at Politico should be jailed until one gives up the site’s source.

Until last week, Trump was the only declared candidate in the Republican presidential field for 2024; Nikki Haley has now joined him. But press freedom has already been a subplot of the race, including among Republicans who haven’t yet declared their candidacies but are expected to. Trump and his fellow frontrunner Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, have both recently proposed (not for the first time, in Trump’s case) weakening the Supreme Court precedent that established a high bar for public figures to sue journalists for defamation; DeSantis did so at an event where he sat behind a desk mimicking a news anchor. (Fears abound that the Court, having overturned established precedent in Roe, could do the same to libel law.) Meanwhile, Mike Pompeo, who served as secretary of state under Trump, published a memoir and laundered a shocking attack on Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist assassinated by Saudi state operatives in Turkey in 2018. Pompeo wrote that he is as much a journalist as Khashoggi was, branding the latter an “activist.” Khashoggi was not “a Saudi Arabian Bob Woodward who was martyred for bravely criticizing the Saudi royal family,” Pompeo wrote. “He didn’t deserve to die, but we need to be clear about who he was—and too many in the media were not.”

Recently, Hanan Elatr, Khashoggi’s widow, appealed to the Biden administration and the United Nations for help in repatriating Khashoggi’s electronic devices, in part to find out whether they were compromised with the same Pegasus spyware that was used to target Elatr herself shortly before Khashoggi’s death. As I wrote last week, Elatr is preparing to sue the maker of Pegasus in US court, in addition to the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who she believed hacked her. Elatr’s targeting was first reported in 2021 as part of a project coordinated by a journalism group called Forbidden Stories. Last week, the group dropped a new project focused, in large part, on a different global threat to the press: online disinformation and harassment targeting reporters. (Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, wrote about the project on Friday.) In particular, hate aimed at women journalists has been normalized globally, Gharidah Farooqi, a Pakistani journalist, told the Post’s Taylor Lorenz, herself a victim of abuse. “I talk to counterparts in the US, UK, Russia, Turkey, even in China. Women everywhere, Iran, our neighbor, everywhere, women journalists are complaining of the same thing.”

We’ve come a long way, now, from Asheville, North Carolina. The various press-freedom fears and violations that I’ve laid out above have often been very different in tenor, scope, and immediacy, and in some cases—the detentions of Rabouin and Lambert, for instance—they are hard to disentangle from societal problems that stretch far beyond the lens of press freedom. Nor has the early part of this year and the latter past of last—the timespan in which all the incidents I’ve referenced occurred—been abnormally dire for press freedom in the US. As the Press Freedom Tracker has noted, “far fewer” reporters were arrested on US soil last year than the year before—and “far, far fewer” were arrested in 2022 than in 2020, when mass protests following the murder of George Floyd led to mass detentions of journalists nationwide. At the national political level, the presidency of Joe Biden has been far better for press freedom than that of Trump; Biden has been far from flawless in this regard, but calls to jail Politico reporters, at least, are not now coming from the Oval Office. Even the killing of German, while abhorrent and abnormal, was far from unprecedented even in recent historical terms, as I wrote last year.

And yet these different cases, including German’s, have all come in the context of a recent climate for press freedom in the US that is historically fragile, even if it isn’t currently at its very lowest ebb. However directly they reflect that climate, the incidents I’ve written about here all at least merit our attention and concern. And, while different in their severity and details, they also all bleed together in certain ways. Zoom out, and they show that press threats in the US take place within something like concentric geographic circles, the exact boundaries of which are fuzzy and porous: local reporters get arrested at the local level; national reporters get arrested at the local level; local politicians with poor records on the press seek national office; national politicians make light of international press-freedom crises; those crises affect journalists at every level inside the US. In his op-ed, Stern wrote that the Asheville trial is “un-American.” In a sense, that’s true. But press threats, as a whole, are very American. At every level.

If some of the incidents above go beyond concerns about press freedom, it’s worth remembering that journalists are, fundamentally, people first, albeit people with particular rights and responsibilities. It’s clear that those at the center of these stories have, in many cases, paid a heavy personal price—the heaviest, in the cases of German and Khashoggi. In the end, the trial of Coit and Bliss in Asheville, which was scheduled for January, was kicked into April, dragging out the uncertainty hanging over them. Prosecutors had tried and failed to combine the journalists’ case with that of an activist. “Their purposes for being there are different,” the attorney for Bliss and Coit told the Citizen-Times. “The state wanted to—and I’m sure they’re going to try and do this at the trial—characterize (Bliss and Coit) as activists and not journalists.”

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today.

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