Dropping a few spots on a list of 180 might not sound like much of a cause for alarm.
But when Reporters Without Borders downgraded the United States from No. 45 to No. 48 recently on its annual World Press Freedom Index, it had deeply troubling implications for our democracy.
In downgrading the U.S., the organization cited President Donald Trump’s war on the media– his labeling of reporters as the “enemies of the people,” his encouragement of attacks on journalists, his accusations of news organizations spreading fake news, and so on.
As a result, the U.S. is now classified as one of the five deadliest countries in the world for journalists and categorized among nations “with a noticeably problematic press freedom environment.”
Others in that category include Kyrgyzstan, Hungary and Romania.
This isn’t just a problem for reporters. Far from it.
It’s an assault on Americans’ freedom of expression, a key component of the fabric that holds our democracy together.
In Trump’s attacks on the press, there are echoes of dictators from across hundreds of years of history.
Destroying facts and discrediting the notion of an objective reality are elemental steps in consolidating power, which requires would-be authoritarians to attack a free press.
Propaganda replaces news, and tight censorship is maintained in order to prevent people from sharing independent thoughts and questioning the leaders’ views.
This is a well-established playbook that crosses all cultures.
In every single case of repressed societies, the lack of a free press is a prominent feature.
Again, though, the ultimate goal isn’t to silence journalists.
It’s to deny a free people the ability to challenge leaders and discuss ideas openly.
That’s what the U.S. is edging toward with Trump’s tribalistic targeting of mainstream media.
It breeds distrust among Americans of media that don’t reflect their political views, which in turn leaves us without a shared set of facts on which to frame constructive discussions.
People retreat deeper into information echo chambers, and sociopolitical divisions become wider.
“If the political debate slides surreptitiously or openly toward a civil warstyle atmosphere, in which journalists are treated as scapegoats, then democracy is in great danger,” said Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders.
“Halting this cycle of fear and intimidation is a matter of the utmost urgency for all people of goodwill who value the freedoms acquired in the course of history.”
Meanwhile, journalists are being subjected to harm merely for doing their work.
Keep in mind, these people go by another name as well– law-abiding Americans. Among the incidents:
The June 2018 attack on the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Md., where five people were killed by a man who’d had a longstanding grudge against the newspaper.
The mailing of explosive devices to CNN’s headquarters in October 2018.
The February arrest of a former Coast Guard lieutenant accused of planning a widespread terrorist attack that targeted several prominent media figures.
Yet Trump has continued with his anti-press rhetoric, increasing the dangers.
“Simultaneously, journalists across the country reported terrifying harassment and death threats, online and in person, that were particularly abusive toward women and journalists of color,” Reporters Without Borders reported.
All of this leaves our democracy on shakier ground and puts us on a darker path– one that we take a step further down every time Trump or Fox News attacks the media.
They may seem like they’re targeting reporters, but what they’re really aiming at is the freedom of every individual in our society to form their own beliefs and opinions free of propaganda from the leadership.–Las Vegas Sun