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Freedom of the Press? Not in the US
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The United States ranks 48th among nations for press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. Because few other countries have the equivalent of our First Amendment, learning that we rank below Botswana and Slovenia may come as a surprise.

Mostly, the organization pins this dismal state of affairs on Trump’s attacks on the news media. It references the White House’s revocation of CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s press card, the president’s “fake news” and “enemy of the people” jibes and his tacit approval of the grisly murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by the government of Saudi Arabia. “At least one White House correspondent has hired private security for fear of their life after receiving death threats, and newsrooms throughout the country have been plagued by bomb threats and were the recipients of other potentially dangerous packages, prompting journalism organizations to reconsider the security of their staffs in a uniquely hostile environment,” says Reporters Without Borders. Cry me a river! I’ve received hundreds of death threats.

Like most other mainstream analyses of the state of press, Reporters Without Borders focuses on how easy it is for large, corporate-owned media conglomerates with establishmentarian political orientations to do their jobs.

Independent journalists, especially those whose politics are left of the Democrats’ or right of the Republicans’, have much bigger problems than deep-pocketed megaconglomerates like CNN.

No consideration of freedom of the press in the U.S. is complete without a hard look at the case of Julian Assange. The founder and publisher of WikiLeaks is rotting in an English prison, awaiting extradition to the United States for possession and dissemination of classified information — exactly what The New York Times did when it published the Pentagon Papers and the Edward Snowden revelations. He is being “treated worse than a murderer, he is isolated, medicated,” says journalist John Pilger, who recently visited him. Incredibly, corporate media is siding with the Trump administration, not merely ignoring Assange but mocking him and accusing him of treason (which is impossible because he’s not American).

Censorship is insidious; readers and viewers can’t know what they’re not told. Almost as sinister as the persecution of Assange is the wholesale erasure of left-wing politics from U.S. news media. Forty-three percent of Americans tell pollsters they want the U.S. to become a socialist country. Thirty-six percent of registered Democrats currently support self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, whose campaign promises closely align with Sanders’.

Watch CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and the other cable news outlets. Once in a very long while, you might catch a token leftist joining a yakfest. You’ll never see a socialist get a gig as a regular contributor, much less be asked to host a show. If you don’t think it’s weird that 43% of the country’s population is being censored, I don’t know what to tell you.

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Pervasive among both corporate and independent journalists is self-censorship. Apologists say that freedom of the press doesn’t include the right to be published, and that’s true. Because journalists are like everyone else and can’t survive without earning money, however, the real-world practical effect of having to earn a living is that reporters and pundits have to watch what they say lest they become unemployable pariahs like I was after 9/11. “Sorry, man,” an editor I considered a friend told me after I asked him for work at his business magazine. “You’re radioactive.”

The Washington Post and other corporate news companies ridiculed Sanders’ recent assertion that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ ownership of the Post influences its coverage. As Sanders noted, it’s not like Bezos calls Post editors to tell them what to print and what to censor.

Self-censorship is subtle. Post executive editor Marty Baron is technically correct when he retorts that “Jeff Bezos allows our newsroom to operate with full independence.” But he’s dodging the meat of the matter. Baron and other Post editors know who their bosses are: Bezos and, more generally, his allies in the corporate ruling class. No matter how much they protest that they can follow any lead and print anything they want, that knowledge of who butters their bread informs every move they make. It’s why, when the editorial page editor sorts through the day’s nationally syndicated political cartoons, he never ever publishes one from a left-wing political orientation, no matter how well written or well drawn it is. It’s why when they’re hiring new staffers, they never hire a leftie. They’re smart enough not to bite the hand that feeds them. It’s also why the person making that hiring decision is not himself or herself part of the 43%.

I’m more audacious. Yet, I too know not to go too far.

I’ve learned that I can draw a cartoon or write a column criticizing “free trade” agreements without fear of getting fired or assassinated. There is also no fear that it will be published by a corporate newspaper, so why bother? Over the long run, I have to give editors material they want to publish; if I send out too much stuff about a verboten topic like free trade, I’ll lose clients.

Forty-eighth? When it comes to press freedom, the U.S. is benefiting from grade inflation.

 
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  1. Smith says:

    There is no freedom of the press ANYWHERE in the world.

    US? No.
    Russia? No.
    China? No.

  2. Not much new here. But well worth repeating. Self censoring journo’s, “manufacturing consent” ….
    The chronic assault on Assange is the vile fruit of this poisonous tree. I wonder whether such “journalists” can, late at night, feel even a shred of shame ?

  3. Parbes says:

    Really good article by Ted Rall. He is one of the best and most honest political columnists/pundits in North America today; and he lays it out as it is. Thank you!

  4. Watch CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and the other cable news outlets. Once in a very long while, you might catch a token leftist joining a yakfest.

    I agree with the thrust of this article, but the claim above is surprising. I can turn on CNN or pick up the NYT and see any number of extreme leftist takes on white privilege, slavery reparations, sex and racial differences, and toxic masculinity. This is stuff that would have been confined to obscure academic journals with circulation in the dozens ten years ago but is now conventional wisdom in the corporate media.

    That might not be the “flavor” of leftism Rall has in mind (I think he wants economic leftism) but it’s leftism nonetheless. This is not is the right censoring the left. Somebody split the left in two and set the halves against each other, and it wasn’t Jerry Falwell.

    • Replies: @Paleo Liberal
  5. Yee says:

    The press is a powerful brainwashing tool to manipulate the public, the equivalent of church of the old days. Such a wonderful tool would never be free, just a matter of who controls it, government or oligarch, pick your poison. Of course, most of time the two work together to fool the masses…

  6. @Faraday's Bobcat

    Cultural leftism is not threatening to the Oligarchs.

    Economic leftism is VERY threatening to the Oligarchs.

    Results?

    You can go to NPR or TV or whatever and find absolute lunatics being treated as mainstream, as long as they are dealing with cultural leftism and not economic leftism. I’ve heard people on NPR say crazy things without being questioned. An “immigration rights activist” saying that native born Americans should have fewer children so we can have more immigration. A leftist saying we need to modify our concept of “free speech” to criminalize “hate speech” to “bring us in line with the rest of the world”. A representative of the SPLC proclaiming that saying immigrants will “rape your sister or steal your job” is hate speech. In other words, according to the SPLC, if I mention I once lost a job so the company could hire a cheaper H1-B visa worker, I am guilty of hate speech, which according to the leftist hate speech advocate should be banned, and I am committing a crime against immigrants anyway by having kids.

    Economic leftism? Advocating a return to the Eisenhower Administration is crazy talk. Even advocating returning to the Reagan Administration is crazy talk. Darn near impossible to find on any network or NPR, etc.

    It has been this way for a long time. Integration is great for business, so business leaders were all behind Martin Luther King when all he talked about was integration. What happened when King decided on a poor person’s march on Washington for some hard core economic leftism? He didn’t live to see the march. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but my family was in DC at the time, and knew some of the powerful people. The word among the Powers That Be was that King had gone “too far”. If he hadn’t been assassinated, they would’ve found some other way to neutralize him.

    • Agree: Parfois1
  7. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but my family was in DC at the time, and knew some of the powerful people. The word among the Powers That Be was that King had gone “too far”.

    The most common explanation of where King had gone too far was _not_ on economic matters, but because he had decided to form an alliance with protesters against the Vietnam War.

    The Vietnam War was cranking out big bucks for LBJ’s military industrial complex donors (can you say “kickbacks”–yes, I thought you could) back in Texas, so something had to be done.

    This will probably be well outside your ideological comfort zone but it is the best book on LBJ the psychopath–nothing else comes close:

  8. d dan says:

    In some web sites or media (main stream or otherwise), you are not allowed to be too pro-China, too pro-Russia, too pro-Iran, or too pro-whatever-need-to-be-demonized. For example, recently, Twitter and Facebook suspended over 200,000 accounts that are said to “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong” as part of a “coordinated state-backed campaign.” Sounds like people who are supporting “state-backed campaign” deserve less rights? All opinions are equal, but some opinions are more equal than others.

  9. You know, there is precious little evidence for a free objective press anywhere in U.S. history. My field is American journalism and I have spent a lifetime reading original old newspapers. The Founders were among the most cynical of men. It’s not hard to picture them laughing in their sleeves over the farcical First Amendment (just as they must have over the Tenth), for well they knew from colonial experience there was no such thing as a free press. The “freedom” to publish belongs only to those who can secure the price of a printing press, ink, and paper, and who, most importantly, curry favor from government and business interests. Ben Franklin, for one example, grew prosperous with printing contracts awarded to his firm by the colonial Pennsylvania Assembly, not for dissenting against it, but for printing in his Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper just what the legislature wanted the people to believe.

    Please notice that the way the First Amendment is worded does not enumerate freedom of speech, assembly, press or religion as positive rights that people possess, but rather as activities which only the national Legislative branch may not infringe upon. As soon as the federal government began in 1789, it rewarded only those partisan newspapers which reported favorably on its activities with the lucrative contracts to publish the latest Acts of Congress, which guaranteed their financial success. The Adams administration violated the supposed spirit of the Bill of Rights before its ink was barely dry with the 1798 Sedition Act, which criminalized criticism of the Federalist regime, and even the alleged apostle of the free press, Thomas Jefferson, attempted as President to legally muzzle opposing Federalist editors such as Harry Croswell and Joseph Dennie.

    If you want to learn the story behind the First Amendment, read Pulitzer Prize-winning author Leonard Levy’s book “Emergence of a Free Press (Ivan Dee, 1985). The author details the evolution of the concept in England and America, and he demonstrates that the framers never intended to overthrow the common law of seditious libel that was the traditional English means of stifling dissent in the press.

  10. Jax says: • Website

    The White House started a DOJ investigation against a male reporter, and hacked the computer of a female reporter……when Obama was president

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