Journalists Need to Stick Together and Back Each Other Up
By Ann Cooper – January 19, 2017
The New York Times
In 2004, I went on a mission for the Committee to Protect Journalists to Bangladesh, where journalists were being beaten and killed at alarming rates. Committee representatives are usually greeted warmly by local journalists in other countries, and Bangladesh was no exception.
It was soon clear to us, however, that many of those local journalists felt no such warmth for each other. There were two rival journalist unions, each affiliated with a different political party. When we insisted on meeting all the union leaders in one room, to discuss how they could fight back against threats and repression, you would have thought we had forced two civil war enemies to get together for a picnic. They came, but only grudgingly.
The political rivalries in the Bangladeshi press corps were extreme, but not unique. In Turkey, in Angola, in Russia and other countries where the press is under fire, I’ve heard local reporters or editors warn that some colleague at another news organization “isn’t a real journalist,” or that somehow a journalist deserved the government’s retaliation for what he or she had written.
My response: You’re all in this together. If you don’t support each other, if you don’t defend each other against attacks, you make all journalists more vulnerable to the politicians who would silence dissent and shut down investigative reporting. It’s a lesson American journalists will learn the hard way if they do not remain unified in this new Age of Trump.
Shepard Smith of Fox News seemed to understand that when he said last week that no journalists “should be subjected to belittling and delegitimizing by the president-elect of the United States.” He was referring to Donald Trump’s press conference attack on a CNN reporter, after the channel published a report about the intelligence dossier on Trump and Russia.
Smith’s words are a good start. But what if the assembled press corps had done what a Columbia Journalism Review writer suggested, picked up the CNN reporter’s line of questioning, “or even refused to continue asking questions, until the president-elect acknowledged” a question from CNN? Spontaneous unity in a room full of American journalists may be wishful thinking, but all it would have taken is one journalist – the next one selected by Trump to ask a question – to cede the microphone to CNN. That’s the kind of quick-thinking solidarity we’re likely to need when the occupant of the Oval Office takes such glee in putdowns of the press.
Solidarity may seem easier in the CNN case than it is in, say, defense of BuzzFeed, which was denounced by the president-elect as a “failing pile of garbage” after it published the unverified Russia dossier in its entirety. Many in the news media criticized BuzzFeed’s editorial choice. That’s fine – we can debate the decision, just as we often debate the editorial direction of Fox News. But journalists need to separate their debate on editorial choice from the issue of Donald Trump and his freewheeling character assassinations. On that point, there should be no debate about how to respond: When Trump attacks one, he attacks us all.