Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders produces a list of which countries in the world they think enjoy the most and least freedom of the press. Given the fact that the US has enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment, it would make sense if we were near the top every year.
But we’ve been sliding down the list precipitously. This year, we slid down twelve places to 46th, mostly because of the pending investigations that have hounded whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. In the words of the report: “The trial and conviction of Private Bradley Manning and the pursuit of NSA analyst Edward Snowden were warnings to all those thinking of assisting in the disclosure of sensitive information that would clearly be in the public interest.”
Punitive measures against whistleblowers is just one element of our constricted freedom of the press, however. Equally unsettling is the degree to which the legislative and executive branches have moved toward accomplishing political maneuvers hidden from the public view. Whether it is writing executive orders, applying political leverage, enforcing bureaucratic regulations, or the like, our government has become a largely “shadow government.”
And this shadow government upholds its public image with puppets and placeholders carefully arranged for “official” reporters and photographers. It is not news that the Obama administration is notoriously opaque toward reporters while at the same time claiming to be “open” and “transparent.”
A scathing report by the Committee to Protect Journalists unfolds the real story of an administration whose “war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive since the Nixon administration.” In its concluding paragraphs, it points out that the example America sets for freedom of the press affects countries around the world. Right now, we are not setting a good example:
Journalists from other countries pointed out that hostility by the U.S. government to the news media can be damaging to press freedom elsewhere, contrary to the openness the Obama administration has been advocating internationally. Mohamed Elmenshawy, the widely published Egyptian columnist and director of regional studies at the Middle Eastern Institute in Washington, said, “As journalists from Third World countries, we look at the U.S. as a model for the very things we want: more freedom of expression and professionalism. We are fighting for free news and not to be threatened, and when we see some issues here regarding regulating news and reporting, it is bad news for us because usually our governments, especially undemocratic ones, use this as an example in a very negative way.”
But I think the worst enemy to freedom of the press is not our tyrannical government. The fact is that news really isn’t news anymore. It hasn’t been for a while. People want to be distracted and entertained. We are glutted with information, but no closer to the truth. Because the masses don’t want to be informed. They just want to feel informed. So the biggest enemy to the freedom of the press isn’t a tyrannical government—it’s an apathetic populace.