Nic Dawes writes: Dear friends in American journalism,
Ordinarily, it is you who offer the rest of the world advice about press freedom, and the accountability architecture of democratic societies, so I understand that it may be strange to hear it coming back at you, but this will not be the last inversion that the election of Donald Trump delivers.
You have some deep resources to draw on for the battle that is closing around you. For starters there is your Constitution, which offers stronger protections than just about any comparable legal framework. And your money, greatly diminished, and unevenly distributed to be sure, but orders of magnitude more plentiful than what your counterparts elsewhere have to call upon. You also have reserves of talent, creativity, and commitment far larger than you are given credit for by your critics, and right now by angry, bewildered, and wounded friends.
But one thing you don’t have, is experience of what to do when things start to get genuinely bad.
Take it from those of us who have worked in places where the institutional fabric is thinner, the legal protections less absolute, and the social license to operate less secure. Not outright dictatorships, but majoritarian democracies where big men—and they are usually men—polish their image in the mirror of state media or social media, while slowly squeezing the life out of independent institutions.
When Donald Trump ditched his press pool twice within days of being elected, and launched a series of Twitter attacks on The New York Times, a lot of you sounded surprised. As if you expected him to become a different person once the anointing oil of the Electoral College had touched his brow. Of course there was nothing surprising about his conduct. Rule number 1 of surviving autocracy, as Masha Gessen reminds us, is “Believe the Autocrat.”
When Mr. Trump threatened during the campaign to review America’s libel law framework, he was setting out his stall, not bluffing. When he threatened to sue, when he mocked a disabled reporter, when he made clear his affinity for Vladimir Putin and Peter Thiel, he was issuing a warning.
Of course, not being surprised doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be outraged. As Gessen also wrote, to survive autocracy, you have to preserve outrage, and your free press is a beautiful, important thing, even when it is besieged and bedraggled. Perhaps especially then.
The rest of us get irritated with you at times, in the manner of less privileged relatives, but you have given the rest of us a good deal over the years, standards to aspire to, innovation to build on, voices of great clarity. Here is some advice in return, mostly from India and South Africa, where an ostensibly free press is confronted with regulatory, economic, and political pressures that come with majoritarianism. [Continue reading…]