American Press Freedom Is Under Siege

Journalists talked about the challenges facing the media to mark World Press Freedom Day at GW.

BBG panel
Frank Sesno (left), John F. Lansing, Michael Oreskes and Elise Labott participate in a panel discussion for World Press Freedom Day at GW. (Logan Werlinger/ GW Today)
May 02, 2017

By Kristen Mitchell

President Donald Trump has made it clear he does not like the media, but the most chilling rebuke of journalists was labeling them the opposition party, said Michael Oreskes, senior vice president of news and editorial director of National Public Radio, during a George Washington University panel discussion.

“That is clear as day, that’s an effort to paint us as partisan,” he said Monday. “It’s an effort to make us combatants in his information war, and I decline.”

The School of Media and Public Affairs in partnership with the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) marked World Press Freedom Day with panel discussions and presentations on covering repressive regimes, global press freedom and the state of the First Amendment in the United States.

During the “Deconstructing International Media—Value, Impact and Evolution” panel Mr. Oreskes said Mr. Trump has taken his media bashing campaign strategy into the White House, a move that created division between news organizations and the public. If journalists keep doing important work, he hopes many Americans will once again recognize the independent press as a protector of liberty, he said.

“The First Amendment right to a free press was not a grant to me as a journalist, it was a grant to all of us as citizens,” Mr. Oreskes said. “I think it would be good if we all came back together around it.”

Mr. Oreskes was joined by John F. Lansing, CEO and director of BBG, and Elise Labott, CNN global affairs correspondent, and moderator Frank Sesno, director of SMPA. Mr. Sesno said it is a challenging time for journalists and press freedom in the United States cannot be taken for granted.

“When the president of the United States refers to journalists as enemies of the people, that is a very concerning thing that enables others not only to say it but to act on it,” he said.

Bruce Wharton

Amb. Bruce Wharton, acting under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, said a free press allows people to make informed decisions while speaking to a crowd at GW for World Press Freedom Day. (Logan Werlinger/ GW Today)

Amb. Bruce Wharton, acting under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs at the Department of State, said in his keynote address press freedom is a distinctly American value.

“Democratic societies are not infallible, but they are accountable and the exchange of ideas is the foundation for accountable governance,” he said. “In the United States and many places around the world the press fosters active debates, provides investigative reporting and serves as a forum for differing points of view.”

Ms. Labott said during the panel discussion, however, Mr. Wharton’s own department has brushed off the media since Mr. Trump took office. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declined to travel with a media pool on a trip to Asia earlier this year and said he is “not a big media press access person.”

“At the State Department we’re really feeling the pressure because they don’t feel they need to explain. When you have someone who is supposed to be the top public diplomat and the U.S. face of foreign policy around the world not wanting to talk to the media...I think that’s a fundamental danger to U.S. policy.”

Ms. Labott said under the Trump administration she is also concerned the BBG could be compromised by Mr. Trump, who may want to use these government-run media tools to advance his own narrative.

Mr. Lansing said there is a firewall in place to prevent any kind of editorial takeover. Voice of America and the BBG are expanding worldwide to rebuke propaganda and provide more information to regions like China, Russia and Turkey where facts are being challenged by government leaders.

“You look at what’s happening coming out of the Kremlin, and it’s really almost beyond a false narrative, it’s really more of a strategy to establish that there is really no such thing as an empirical fact,” he said. “Once you have an audience that doesn’t trust any set of facts, then you really have no way for that community or that audience to debate anything on a realistic level, because there is no agreed to set of facts.”

The World Press Freedom Day event also featured a panel on the challenges of international reporting and striking a balance between risk and delivering critical news and other presentations.

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