US absence from Davos mirrors global retreat from press freedom

In October, “Davos in the desert” went ahead under a heavy cloud. A bevy of senior public figures and corporations—including media partners such as Bloomberg and The New York Timeswithdrew from the ritzy investment conference in Riyadh amid global outrage over Saudi Arabia’s apparent murder, just weeks earlier, of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Three months on, at the real Davos, in Switzerland, Khashoggi’s killing loomed over a panel discussion, hosted by Reuters, on the global retreat of press freedom and why it matters for the world’s elites. “There hasn’t been full accountability for that murder,” said Marty Baron, editor of The Washington Post, where Khashoggi was a contributor. “We don’t feel that the US government has brought enough pressure on the Saudis. We don’t feel other governments have brought enough pressure on the Saudis.”

Neither Khashoggi’s death nor the role of the media is the focus of this year’s World Economic Forum, a five-day mountainside networking opportunity for capitalism’s political and financial guardians which opened yesterday. But the abdication of US moral authority on press freedom handily reflects the central concern of many attendees: the Trump’s administration’s abandonment of world leadership, retreat from the liberal norms of globalization, and nationalistic, “America First” agenda. Representatives of the US government are also physically absent this year after Trump ordered full focus on the shutdown mess instead. As economist Cailin Birch told CNBC this week, “The absence of a US delegation at Davos is an accurate reflection of global affairs over the last year.” (Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did speak yesterday via video link.)

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For once on the world stage, Trump isn’t out on a limb—beset by urgent domestic crises of their own, UK Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron have also opted to stay home. Much coverage and commentary, particularly in the US, focused on the theme of absence in the run-up to the WEF. The same has held true now proceedings are underway. MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle, wrapped up warm against a backdrop of snow-brushed trees, reported back yesterday from her conversations with US business leaders, who expressed concern that America is once again disengaging from the rest of the world.

With key Western leaders not in town, however, space has opened up for emerging powers to make headlines. Yesterday, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right new president, pitched his country to assembled investors, promising to slash regulations and wage war on the political left (although, as The Guardian’s Tom Phillips notes, the speech was panned internationally, and overshadowed at home by Brazilian newspaper reports linking his son to a Rio de Janeiro death squad). Today Wang Qishan, China’s deputy president will appear. As the Financial Times’s Gideon Rachman wrote on Monday, “In the absence of the Americans, it will be much easier for China to make its case unchallenged.”

While right-wing nationalism and populism are not new to 2019, a greater pall than before hangs over this year’s Davos coverage. When Trump spoke at the summit last year, the world’s economic power-brokers could choose to ignore his hostile politics and focus instead on his recently passed tax cut and the US’s positive economic performance. One year on, fears of a downturn and global economic fragmentation—driven, in no small part, by Trump’s trade war with China—are palpable. While the optimistic theme of the conference, “Globalization 4.0,” does reflect an age of rapid technological innovation, many of the companies in the driving seat, such as Facebook and Huawei, have themselves fallen under political clouds. “The combination of climate change, income inequality, technology, and geopolitics pose an existential threat to humanity,” Klaus Schwab, the WEF’s founder and chair, said in a pre-Davos statement.

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Reuters tried yesterday to train attention, at least briefly, on the importance of press freedom in maintaining the global order: Baron made the case that it forms the basis of political freedom, which forms the basis of economic freedom, which spurs growth. Davos 2019 is a visible reminder that those forces are in retreat together.

Below, more on Davos:

Other notable stories:

  • Sarah Huckabee Sanders has not held an on-camera press briefing for 36 days—a record for Trump’s time in office, according to ABC’s Alexander Mallin. Trump tweeted yesterday that Sanders has avoided the podium because “the press covers her so rudely & inaccurately,” adding “I told her not to bother, the word gets out anyway!” Olivier Knox, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, hit back, calling the decline of the briefing “a terrible precedent.” CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak, meanwhile, report that infighting between senior aides has paralyzed the White House press shop.
  • On today’s Today show, NBC’s Savannah Guthrie has an interview with Nick Sandmann, the Covington Catholic High School student who attracted outrage over the weekend for staring down Native American veteran Nathan Phillips in Washington. (Some left-wing commentators tweeted that Sandmann, who used the interview to deny any wrongdoing, should not have been given such a high-profile platform.)
  • More than two-dozen law enforcement agencies in Colorado have started encrypting their radio communications, leaving local crime reporters, who use police scanners to pick up stories, increasingly in the dark. For CJR, Jonathan Peters writes that the encryption drive threatens transparency and gives cops more control over crime narratives.
  • For The Atlantic, Scott Nover talks with the Post’s Jason Rezaian on Rezaian’s new book, Prisoner, a memoir of the 544 days he spent in an Iranian jail on sham espionage charges. “People accuse me all the time of having Stockholm syndrome any time I say something that’s not disparaging about Iran,” Rezaian tells Nover. “It’s not that the Islamic Republic is good… It’s just that this is a little more complicated than good versus evil. Let’s interrogate it.”
  • CJR’s Andrew McCormick reflects on how journalists could change the way they talk about people who are in prison. Jelani Cobb, who guest edited CJR’s fall print issue on race and journalism, told McCormick, “As long as we’re talking about people only in terms of what they’ve done wrong, it’s easy to camouflage the fact that we’re talking about human beings.”
  • Vox Media is acquiring The Coral Project, an open-source publishing platform housed within the Mozilla Foundation, Axios’s Sara Fischer reports. The Coral Project currently helps newsrooms such as the Post, The Wall Street Journal, and New York magazine manage their reader comment sections.
  • Yesterday’s Oscar nominations saw nods for two films linked to major news organizations: Black Sheep, a short documentary commissioned by The Guardian on a black British child’s efforts to gain the friendship of a gang of racists, and RBG, a longer feature on Ruth Bader Ginsburg produced by CNN Films and made by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, who is a professor at Columbia Journalism School.
  • CJR’s Mathew Ingram led a Galley Q&A with HuffPost’s Ashley Feinberg, whose searing interview with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey made headlines. “If you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to talk to someone with this much power and this much influence, it’d be a moral abdication not to do everything in your power to push them as hard as possible and to make them as uncomfortable as possible,” Feinberg said. You can join the conversation here.
  • And Russell Baker, the Pulitzer-winning journalist, author, and humorist who wrote nearly 5,000 “Observer” columns for the Times over 36 years, died yesterday. He was 93.

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Correction: A previous version of this post referred to Nathan Phillips as “a Native American war veteran.” While he is a veteran, he did not serve in the Vietnam War, according to The Washington Post. This post has been updated.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.