By Mark Taylor-Canfield / Truthout
CODEPINK cofounder Medea Benjamin interrupted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a Washington Post-sponsored World Press Freedom Day event on May 3, taking the stage where a Post journalist was interviewing Blinken. Benjamin demanded that the U.S. and United Kingdom free imprisoned WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
A group of men in suits, presumably Secret Service agents, immediately charged onto the stage and forcibly removed Benjamin and another activist who joined her. Blinken, however, failed to address either Assange’s persecution or the U.S.’s continued decline in press freedom after the disruption.
Assange faces extradition to the U.S. on Espionage Act charges for his role in publishing secret U.S. military documents, even though he collaborated with several major newspapers, including The New Year Times, in exposing corruption and deception by U.S. government officials.
Benjamin’s protest took place shortly after Reporters Without Borders released the new World Press Freedom Index at the gathering in a short video presentation, revealing that the U.S. dropped in its ranking from 42nd in 2022, to 45th this year. The drop continues the U.S.’s steady fall in its ranking since at least 2002, when it was ranked 17th in the world in terms of press freedom.
Worldwide, at least seven media workers have been killed and 568 are currently being detained or imprisoned this year. Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists report that 2023 is on track to become the worst year for reporters amid the rise of authoritarian regimes and democratic backsliding on press freedom protections. The United Nations celebrated the 30-year anniversary of its designation of May 3 as World Press Freedom Day.
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According to Reporters Without Borders, however, the U.S. dropped three places this year because “major structural barriers to press freedom persist in this country.” This criticism includes the increase in prosecutions of whistleblowers like Assange who leak classified documents in the public interest.
RWB’s new report attributed additional factors to the drop in the U.S. ranking in press freedom, stating that “many of the underlying, chronic issues impacting journalists remain unaddressed by the authorities — including the disappearance of local news, the polarisation of the media or the weakening of journalism and democracy caused by digital platforms and social networks.”
Reporters Without Borders also cited threats made toward U.S. journalists as a major concern in its 2023 report, noting that “online harassment, particularly towards women and minorities, is also a serious issue for journalists and can impact their quality of life and safety.” Last year the U.S. was ranked number 72 in the world in security for journalists. In 2023, the nation dropped to the 120th rank.
Another major factor, however, is the continued consolidation of major media networks. As the 2023 report on press freedom states, “any popular news outlets are owned by a handful of wealthy individuals.”
A small group of media companies and individuals continue to dominate U.S. media markets, making it almost impossible for independently or publicly funded media to compete. For example, iHeart Media, formerly known as Clear Channel, owns 855 radio stations in 160 markets. iHeart owns or streams programming for many right-wing and conservative religious stations across the country.
Fox Broadcasting Company owns 29 television stations in 17 markets and has 227 affiliate stations.
Fox is a subsidiary of Fox Entertainment which is itself a subsidiary of News Corporation Limited — part of the billionaire media proprietor Rupert Murdoch’s family empire. Murdoch also controls dozens of major and regional newspapers, publications, magazines and radio stations around the world.
Sinclair Broadcast Group owns 200 TV stations covering more than 40 percent of households in the U.S. It also owns 20 regional sports cable networks, a handful of digital multicast networks, and an internet streaming service.
Sinclair has been a major promoter of conservative politics in the media, and OpenSecrets has documented the revolving door between government and lobbyists at Sinclair. Two out of three lobbyists have formerly held government jobs. Some Sinclair-owned TV stations are also Fox affiliates.
Despite these growing corporate monopolies, Reporters Without Borders reports that more than 360 newsrooms have been shuttered in the U.S. since 2019 — most of them local news organizations and newspapers.
For example, Seattle, like all other major U.S. cities, used to have multiple printed newspapers, including the The Seattle Times, Seattle Star and Post Intelligencer. But Seattle Star and Post Intelligencer are now online-only publications with a much smaller readership. From 1983 to 2009, The Seattle Times and the Post Intelligencer were under a joint operating agreement by the Seattle Times Company. 145 jobs were lost at Post Intelligencer when it went online, and 150 editorial positions were eliminated at The Seattle Times shortly before that, in December 2008.
The Seattle Times is now the only major printed newspaper in the city, enjoying a complete monopoly of the newspaper industry locally. Many large cities are now one-newspaper towns after years of downsizing, mergers and newspaper closures.
If the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) continues to cave to large media companies and allow media monopolies to grow in size and power, then there’s little hope for the viability of independent and community media in the U.S. We need reforms that ensure the FCC is able and willing to enforce antitrust regulations.
We must demand increased public funding to independent non-corporate media; PBS and National Public Radio are just not adequate to provide the diversity of opinion and representation that is required in a healthy democratic society.
Local governments can pass resolutions in support of the rights of journalists to be free from targeting and harassment by law enforcement agencies. These resolutions would direct police departments to honor the rights of reporters, especially those who are covering civil unrest or political protests.
There are other legislative and public policy initiatives which could help improve U.S. press freedom, including federal protections for whistleblowers like Assange and new antitrust legislation.
Rep. Jamie Raskin’s PRESS Act was passed in the House but failed to be approved by the Senate. The bill would provide a shield law to protect journalists from prosecution for refusing to reveal their sources. The U.S. currently has no federal shield law protecting journalists from that kind of prosecution. Raskin’s anti-SLAPP (“Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation”) bill, a separate piece of legislation introduced in the current legislative session, would also protect journalists from being sued when they report information vital to the public interest.
Likewise, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), would allow small and independent media outlets to join together to negotiate for fair compensation when tech giants like Google and Facebook use them as news sources. The Seattle Times editorial board supports the bill.
The Local Journalism Sustainability Act, introduced into the House by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Arizona), would give tax credits to local newspapers. It was introduced in 2020 and again in 2021 but was never voted on.
The U.S. must confront its problems with both press freedom and media consolidation. We may not have a state-controlled media, but our corporate-dominated media landscape and the lack of rigorous press protections limit diversity of political views and ownership.
Mark Taylor-Canfield is a Seattle journalist and musician. He is executive director of Democracy Watch News.