U.S. Must Protect Free Press Ideals at Home and Abroad

IPDGC panel talked about the importance of a free press in democracies.

Walter Roberts Lecture 2021
Clockwise from top left: David Ensor, Amanda Bennett, Nick Cull and Rick Stengel.
April 09, 2021

By Willona Sloan

More than half of all U.S. jobs in journalism have been lost in the past decade during the same time that 780 journalists globally have been killed during their work, said David Ensor, director of the Project for Media and National Security and former director of Voice of America.

Hundreds more journalists have been imprisoned, thousands more harassed and threatened during the past 10 years, Mr. Ensor said.

Opening a virtual panel discussion, “What Should the U.S. Do to Protect Global Media Freedoms,” on Thursday evening, Mr. Ensor also shared results of the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer, which showed that 57 percent of respondents in an international survey said that the media is untrustworthy.

“What can the Biden administration, what can the West do, to protect and perhaps enhance media freedoms?” said Mr. Ensor, who was moderating the panel for George Washington University Institute for Public Diplomacy & Global Communication’s Walter Roberts Lecture Series.

Panelist Richard Stengel, a political analyst and former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs during the Obama administration, explained that press freedom is congruous to the strength of a country’s democracy.

“Press freedom falls where democracy falls and rises where democracy rises,” said Mr. Stengel, who worked on the Biden administration’s transition team. Mr. Stengel noted that one of the cornerstones of Biden’s foreign policy will be the promotion of democracy abroad and the ideals of free press.

Amanda Bennett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, an investigative journalist and the former director of Voice of America, said that U.S. Agency for Global Media’s (USAGM) mission is important in upholding democratic principles in the U.S. and internationally. 

“Free press helps create democracies and sustain democracies,” said Ms. Bennett. “There is no other way to explain why [in] societies and countries in decline, the first thing the authoritarian rulers go after is the press.”

USAGM includes Voice of America, an organization that provides news in more than 40 languages to an estimated weekly audience of more than 280 million people. USAGM, which underwent a shake-up during the Trump administration and the ouster of CEO Michael Pack at the start of the Biden administration, also houses organizations such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia that report news in countries where a free press is banned or not fully established.

When asked whether U.S.-funded public media organizations should be independent of the U.S. government, specifically State Department control, Ms. Bennett strongly agreed.

“I think we’ve all seen what it looks like when it attempts to become a messaging operation,” she said. “It’s not positive for the U.S. image overseas; it’s not positive for the U.S. image domestically.”

Nicholas Cull, historian and professor of public diplomacy and founding director of the master’s program in public diplomacy at the University of Southern California, offered a multi-pronged approach to the protection of press freedoms, focusing first on the role of leaders in promoting media freedom domestically. In democratically vulnerable areas, the focus should be on creating and sustaining media platforms, he said.  

“Our leaders need to emphasize media freedom and stand by that principle even when it’s uncomfortable to do so,” Dr. Cull said.

He recommended using external media outlets to meet reporting needs in vulnerable areas and pointed to the examples of USAGM outlets. He also explained the critical importance of professional development, network building and international exchange opportunities for journalists. Dr. Cull noted the importance of strengthening people’s understanding of media literacy and the role of journalism in a thriving civil society.

“What I hope President Biden will do is defend the right of credible broadcasters to do that job in multiple languages and support other elements of free media development,” Dr. Cull said.

The annual lecture is funded by the Walter R. Roberts Endowment for the Public Diplomacy Institute, established in 2006 by a philanthropic gift from Walter R. Roberts, emeritus faculty member of the Elliott School of International Affairs.

Politics and Society