Who ever thought that the USA would be the place where journalists would fear for their safety? The home of the First Amendment and the rhetorical respect for a free press, while ebbing and flowing, is heading into a crisis.
In 2011, when I wrote Kill the Messenger: The Media’s Role in the Fate of the World, I focused on how hate messages, blame frames and an “us-versus-them” mentality contributed to widespread violence, antagonisms and polarization in 10 case studies.
I wrote the book as a means of building understandings that simplistic blame frames and the “us-versus-them” mentality do no good for any society. They divide, they simplify, they antagonize and only reward negative emotions — contempt, anger, fear, outrage and hate — all with destructive action tendencies. These ways of portraying complex political are not true, but caricatures of reality, myths conveyed by framing.
The more that we use them, the more real they seem, calcifying group psychology, such as groupthink. It is dangerous, particularly when the messages advocate for harming “the other.” Every violent conflict uses these conceptual tools to persuade their “own” to not think twice about the well-being of “the others” and the harm inflicted on them, physically, economically, psychologically.
Equally important, in the worst-case scenarios with mass killings and torture occurred in the absence of ethical, responsible journalism, which in most cases had been silenced. Think Rwanda, the Holocaust, Bosnia. Genocidal leaders do not like independent observation.
At the time that I wrote Kill the Messenger, I saw a new rise of hate, blame and that “us-versus-them” here in the USA, turned first onto members of our own society, first through emotionally-laden talk radio programs, followed by some cable programs and then through the unbridled, unchecked internet media.
I expected and hoped that the institutions and the wisdom of the overall US electorate would withstand and eventually correct course. But it has instead only become more pronounced, the USA more divided. And now, these frames are being turned onto journalist and journalism itself.
Let’s bring this into context, the point of a free press and free speech is manifold and self-evident. But one vital reason for it is for self-improvement. Governments and citizens need to understand the flaws in our system, our decisions, our structures, so we can seek to better our nation and world. This can only happen when understandings between each other and about the civic and political process run deep enough to discuss evidence-based realities. This is the point of a free media. It doesn’t mean we give the media a free pass either. But neither does it mean that we should demonize, dehumanize or attack any of the above. These are not the signs of “free speech,” much less a “free press.”
What we’ve been witnessing is a downward spiral, in which hate, first turned on our fellow citizens of the country (or the world) is now being turned onto journalists and journalism itself. While many of us media scholars focused on press freedom in the parts of the world where journalists were not safe, here in our own country, our journalists are being beaten, silenced and harassed into silence. The US Freedom tracker, launched in August of 2017 has already noted 31 arrests, 30 physical attacks, 14 equipment searches and seizures and four border stops.
No doubt the president has contributed to this environment, with his threats to jail journalists and revoke broadcast licenses when the reports are uncomfortable for him. But without free press, the other freedoms in the USA are left completely in the dark.