New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg, hyper-sensitive to threats to his profession from fearsome President Trump -- found his most dubious one yet and wrote it up as a dark threat barely averted in Saturday’s “A Newsroom Risk In the Trump Era: Self-Censorship.”
He got right into the drama, with Trump as a fascist-in-formation:
This is how the muzzling starts: not with a boot on your neck, but with the fear of one that runs so deep that you muzzle yourself.
Maybe it’s the story you decide against doing because it’s liable to provoke a press-bullying president to put the power of his office behind his attempt to destroy your reputation by falsely calling your journalism “fake.”
Maybe it’s the line you hold back from your script or your article because it could trigger a federal leak investigation into you and your sources (so, yeah, jail).
Or, maybe it’s the commentary you spike because you’re a publicly supported news channel and you worry it will cost your station its federal financing.
In that last case, your fear would be existential -- a matter of your very survival -- and your motivation to self-censor could prove overwhelming.
“A matter of your very survival"?
Rutenberg delivered a blow-by-blow of the recent controversy at a San Antonio PBS station:
The editorial misfire bears retelling because it showed the most likely way that the new administration’s attempts to shut down the free press could succeed, just as it shows how those attempts can be stopped.
The story began with a Jan. 24 speech that Representative Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas, gave on the House floor regarding what he described as the unfair way the national media was covering President Trump. He said for instance that the media ignored highs in consumer confidence, which of course it did not. And he ended with an admonition for his constituents: “Better to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”
His remarks caught the notice, and the ire, of a longtime San Antonio-area journalist and commentator, Rick Casey, who hosts a weekly public affairs program “Texas Week” on KLRN. He ends each week’s show with his own commentary, which also runs in The San Antonio Express-News.
But Mr. Smith’s comments bothered him enough that he wrote up a stemwinder of a closing commentary. “Smith’s proposal is quite innovative for America,” it went. “We’ve never really tried getting all our news from our top elected official. It has been tried elsewhere, however. North Korea comes to mind.”
Rep. Smith found out before airing, called the station, and the station’s president Arthur Rojas Emerson pulled the controversial commentary.
At a meeting the next Monday, Mr. Casey said, Mr. Emerson expressed concern “that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was under attack and that this would add to it.” The Corporation for Public Broadcasting provides financing for public stations, including KLRN, and Mr. Trump’s election has heightened fears that its financing will be cut.
Somehow it’s "self-censorship" to think that comparing President Trump to North Korea’s death-dealing dictator may not be the best thing for a taxpayer-supported media outlet to be doing. Rutenberg rounded up more Texas liberals to chime in from the Texas Tribune, whose four-year partnership with the NYT ended in 2014.
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Another titan of Texas journalism, Evan Smith, who co-founded The Texas Tribune and regularly appears on Mr. Casey’s program, noticed Mr. Garcia’s column while he was in Washington. “I had a hot coffee in my hand and I came very close to dropping it,” Mr. Smith told me. “Holding people accountable in public life is so fundamentally important that this idea that somehow we’re going to stop doing that because we’re worried about what the government’s going to do to us, I so unbelievably reject that.”
Rutenberg let the station owner briefly raise the possibility that maybe smearing an American president as a North Korean dictator isn’t the fairest thing for a tax-funded TV station to be doing.
He acknowledged that “clearly we always worry about funding for public television,” but said that wasn’t the “principal reason” for his decision to hold back the commentary. “We have to protect the neutrality of the station -- somebody could have looked at it as slander,” he said. The “commentary” label, he said, would take care of it.
Rutenberg draped his heroes with capes, while warning the battle wasn’t over (and forget all those pesky prosecutions of leaks by the Obama administration, including one targeting a Times reporter, who subsequently named the Obama White House “The greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.”
In a week in which Congress is calling for a leak investigation into stories in The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN that led to Michael T. Flynn’s forced resignation as national security adviser, heroism is what’s called for. Hopefully there’s enough of it to go around.
The Times clearly felt no censorship threat, self or otherwise, when it ran a compilation Saturday of overseas news accounts of President Trump’s media-trashing press conference. Under the heading “Watching Trump From Abroad With Sarcasm, Silence and Scorn,” the Times offered some vile opinions that perhaps it felt it couldn’t quite get away with itself. The paper saw fit to run this thought from a random guy in Nigeria.
“That man is going to be assassinated,” predicted a local contractor for humanitarian aid groups who was watching the news conference in Maiduguri, Nigeria. “Idi Amin!” he belted out later, likening Mr. Trump’s performance to that of the former president of Uganda in the 1970s who was criticized for human rights abuses.
And this charmer from the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz:
The columnist Bradley Burston wrote that there was no longer any doubt in his mind: “Donald Trump IS an anti-Semite.”