As an organization that regularly deals with reporters, freedom of the press is a vital part of our work. In honor of World Freedom of Press Day today, I spoke with University of California political scientist M. Steven Fish, author of Democracy Derailed in Russia: The Failure of Open Politics, and my professor, about the current climate for press freedom at home and abroad.
Democracy is a Team Sport and it Needs Referees
Democracy is a team sport. It takes a collective effort for a nation to run freely and fairly, and the press plays the critical but often demonized role of the referee. To effectively call “balls and strikes” or “fouls,” however, citizens must trust the press to gather the facts and report accurately on foul play. But if people don’t trust the press to do its job, the whole game can get out of hand.
That’s why a country’s ability or inability to allow a non-government affiliated press to report freely is at the heart of Robert Dahl’s five-point scale that serves as a guideline of whether a country can be categorized as a democracy.
Freedom of Press is in Recession
According to Professor Fish, a thriving democracy is greatly dependent on a press that is unencumbered and able to research and report information. Currently, “there is a recession in the freedom of press” around the world, particularly in Russia and China but even expanding into democracies. In the United States trust in media at all-time lows in the U.S. and leaders commenting on changing libel laws.
America’s Freedom of the Press is Resilient
Despite the current threats, Fish believes that America’s freedom of the press is remarkably resilient. He cites three main components that will prevent any efforts to chip away at media freedoms.
- Constitutional precedents. Fish cites, “Fortunately we have the first amendment, which is interpreted very broadly in the United States.”
- A robust civil society. “I would be surprised if [the administration] made much progress, I think society is pushing back.”
- The courts. “I think the courts are a guard in the United States…And now more than ever we are going to see if our courts are strong enough to hold up and provide a checks and balances.”
How Effective Can the Refs Be in the Age of “Fake News”?
America’s fundamental protections for press freedom are safe for now, but the protections are weakening under our current administration and make the press more susceptible to suppression. The press is easily demonized, but never more so than in the age of tech, with good reason. The rise of “fake news” makes it increasingly difficult for the free press to effectively do its job of refereeing.
Although Professor Fish never directly addressed the topic of “fake news,” his points remain true; its up to us to call “off-sides” on what we are reading or viewing and apply the same precedents to the news as they have done in the past. And as a society, it is crucial that we figure out a path for credible online journalism, and that means investing in real news.