Bloomberg; illustration by Darrel Frost
Editor's Note

Free Press, Functioning Democracy

You can’t have one without the other.

April 17, 2023

Shortly before the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump drew applause at campaign rallies by recounting how an MSNBC reporter, Ali Velshi, had been hit by police with a rubber bullet to the knee while he was covering a protest related to the killing of George Floyd. “It was the most beautiful thing,” Trump said. Later, Trump referred to Velshi, incorrectly, as “that idiot reporter from CNN.” The crowd laughed.

What was remarkable about the attack was how unremarkable it had become. Trump targeted the press throughout his tenure—and it seemed that the taunting had less to do with disliking a particular story, or disapproving of an outlet (Trump couldn’t seem to figure out where Velshi worked), than making an enemy out of the press in general. By the time Trump left office, he’d normalized the idea that it was fair game for a president to attack the institution of journalism, and spawned a political movement in America that sees no relation between democracy and the press that covers it. 

Years ago, Americans were willing to hold opposing views about the press: though they often expressed annoyance, or worse, about individual reporters or stories, they nevertheless acknowledged the value of a functioning, independent media. Reporting on Watergate and Vietnam, for instance, sparked loud complaints about journalism at the time, but Richard Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson never went as far as Trump in questioning the fundamental right of a free press to function. If they had, they would have been outliers in mainstream political thought.

Thanks to Trump, the culture has changed. Democracy seems to have hit a breaking point; authoritarianism has crept in. “The crisis of American democracy has been facilitated by the crises confronting American journalism,” writes Jelani Cobb, the dean of the Columbia Journalism School, in an essay introducing an upcoming conference cosponsored by CJR. “Hindered by declining revenues, a diminished public trust, a shrinking labor force, and the emergence of a sophisticated disinformation ecosystem, the press, as the debates over the COVID vaccines and the 2020 election indicate, has had difficulty convincing many Americans of basic facts.”

The outliers have become the mainstream. Greg Gianforte, a Republican from Montana who body-slammed a reporter for The Guardian in 2017 while running for Congress, is now governor of the state. (“He is my type!” Trump said after the attack.) Ron DeSantis—the governor of Florida and Trump’s likely opponent in next year’s Republican primary—has proposed a series of measures that hobble reporters’ ability to do their jobs, including one that makes it easier for public figures to sue a media outlet, and another that would ensure comments made by anonymous sources would be presumed false in defamation lawsuits. Despite—or perhaps because of—that, DeSantis is considered the front-runner among establishment Republicans. Trump, meanwhile, has continued to make anti-press insults a staple of his rallies.

Ours is a dark moment for journalism. According to the most recent Gallup polling, trust in media is near a historic low; another study found that almost two thousand journalists lost their jobs in the past year; social media remains a toxic place for reporters, particularly if they’re women or journalists of color. And, fundamentally, thanks to a political culture that rewards undermining news media, too many people in the United States have decoupled a free press from the functioning of a democratic society.

We know, too, that these problems are not self-contained. Since the early years of Trump’s political career, his anti-press rhetoric has crossed borders, adopted by foreign leaders, as part of a global rise in authoritarianism. Journalism—a job that has always required confrontation, a willingness to challenge people in power—was frequently recast as “opposition” reporting. This new issue of CJR, “Breaking Points,” observes how that has unfolded everywhere from Myanmar to Pakistan to Ukraine to Brazil, and many countries in between. After Russia banished TV Rain, the last independent TV news network in the country, journalists were forced to flee; the broadcast resumed from Riga, Latvia. But as Annie Hylton writes, in a profile of one of TV Rain’s rising stars, Valeria Ratnikova, public anger toward the Kremlin formed a perception of Russian reporters resettling abroad, many of whom underestimated the extent to which they would need to articulate their independence from their homeland: “In this heightened environment,” a source tells Hylton, “it was a predictable mutual disaster.” In India, the largest democracy in the world, documentary filmmakers are finding it harder than ever to bring their work to light—and preserve a place for criticism in the archives. In CJR’s first foray into film, Zainab Sultan hears from documentarians about their predicament; as Nakul Singh Sawhney says, “They could just come and arrest you. And you could get beaten up, right? But people are still doing it.” Writing from Hong Kong, Hsiuwen Liu describes how members of the city’s free press have found openings in a tightly regulated environment. Some have managed to carry on reporting; even so, they wonder: “Who knows what will happen tomorrow?”

Elsewhere in the issue, Sophie Neiman writes about Uganda’s Twitter battleground, where Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the son of the country’s longtime president, posts with impunity, while reporters are subject to harassment, arrest, and physical abuse. Emily Russell examines the media relationship between America and Afghanistan, where US government–funded broadcasts have attempted to spread democracy; in an audio piece, she questions how that project has gone—and what risk it has posed to local journalists. And Maddy Crowell profiles Runa Sandvik, a New York–based hacker who has made it her life’s work to protect journalists against cyberthreats, and who has found that authoritarian regimes are keeping her in business. There’s much more, and you can find it all here.

With another US presidential election in sight, American journalists are now required to hold two jobs: report on a deeply polarized country and defend the role of their profession in a democracy. It is an outsize task, one that will almost certainly strain tensions within newsrooms. Is the best approach to call out antidemocratic movements directly and actively—to embrace the notion of opposition journalism? Or is a more restrained, “objective” approach more apt to engender trust? Journalism is split, often along generational lines. To me, the path forward requires journalists to double down on reporting and lean into their role as adversaries. As I wrote in CJR shortly after Trump’s election, in 2016, We need to embrace, even relish, our legacy as malcontents and troublemakers, people who are willing to say the thing that makes everyone else uncomfortable.”

The moment we are in feels dire. But the need for what reporters do—holding the powerful to account, listening to people who are struggling, confronting injustice—is as essential as ever. We have no choice but to engage—and make our voices heard.

Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.