Each day in this troubled world we witness a myriad of methods to snuff out journalism and, ultimately, to squelch democracy by preventing citizens from discovering governmental corruption and corporate fraud.
In Hong Kong this month, the Chinese government continued down the road to brutal authoritarianism. In this instance, 500 police officers ransacked the offices of Apple Daily newspaper, arrested five executives of the newspaper, and froze its assets. The newspaper’s crime? The vague charge of “endangering national security” or, in plain English, advocating for democracy.
In late May, Belarus highjacked a commercial jet over European airspace to arrest journalist Roman Protasevich. According to state media in Belarus, the kidnapping was personally ordered by that country’s president Alexander Lukashenko, who, the BBC reports, “has cracked down on dissenting voices. Many opposition figures have been arrested, while others fled into exile.”
In 2017 in Malta, a car bomb killed anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had, among other investigative reporting feats, connected the dots between that country’s gambling industry and organized crime.
The Turkish government routinely storms and shuts down newspapers under the pretense of a failed coup in 2016. As The Atlantic reported, “The vast majority of the country’s mainstream media is owned by relatives or allies of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s strongman president. Self-censorship is pervasive; critical journalists are jailed, fined, or fired.”
Mexican cartels kill anyone who comes too close to uncovering the truth about how drug dealers bribe judges and police officers, often with the cooperation of those same crooked officials. Around 100 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, including Israel Vázquez Rangel of the news site El Salmantino. On November 20 of last year, Vázquez Rangel was assassinated while investigating human remains near the city of Salamanca.
Russia routinely imprisons reporters it finds troublesome with trumped-up charges sanctioned by paid-off judges. If that doesn’t work there is always poison or a bullet to the head as in the case of famed reporter and Vladimir Putin critic Anna Stepanovna Politkovskaya who was murdered in 2006. She had once said that, “If you want to go on working as a journalist, it’s total servility to Putin. Otherwise, it can be death, the bullet, poison, or trial—whatever our special services, Putin’s guard dogs, see fit.”
America’s Declining State of Newspapers
Here in the United States, where the First Amendment supposedly protects freedom of the press, a softer, but no less pernicious, method is used. Call it crass and craven corporate capitalism. Led by slick bottom-line suits and bottom-feeders — also known as hedge fund managers — these fat cats care not a fig for the vital role of newspapers as public watchdogs. This shrinking of the media most certainly is a boon to the financial industry. There will be even less scrutiny of white-collar crime, crime that often goes unpunished.
Two weeks ago, I received an email from my editor at the Chicago Tribune, a woman who has supported my commentaries for years. She was taking a buyout from the newspaper because, well, what choice did she have?
Earlier this year Alden Global Capital LLC acquired the Tribune Publishing Company, America’s country’s second-largest newspaper company. Alden’s president Heath Freeman is infamous in the newspaper industry for gutting newsrooms as cost-cutting measures and to ensure that shareholders see profits. Alden also owns the MediaNews Group, with 70 newspaper dailies such as the Denver Post.
How did the Denver Post fare under Alden’s management? Since the Alden takeover in 2011, the Denver Newspaper Guild has reported that the Denver Post has cut its staff by 70 percent. Hard to argue with former Post editor Chuck Plunkett when he labeled Alden as “vulture capitalists.”
No wonder that editors and reporters at the Chicago Tribune are leaving.
The same day I received the email from my editor, six of the top Tribune columnists also took buyouts: Eric Zorn, Dahleen Glanton, John Kass, Heidi Stevens, Steve Chapman, and Mary Schmich. Schmich won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. Like her four colleagues, she had been with the Tribune for decades.
The absence of these long-time Tribune writers and editors comes with a price that the bean counters cannot calculate. The irreplaceable loss of institutional knowledge coupled with the deep-rooted contacts one needs to cover a complex and often corrupt city like Chicago truly is a death knell for the paper. Expect even more underhanded shenanigans among the city’s powerful political machine.
Local dailies are also dying on the vine, creating “news deserts” across the United States. In their place, we have unreliable blogs and a myriad of other poorly sourced and politically driven “news” outlets, such as the rapidly expanding media reach of Fox, Nexstar, One America News Network, and Sinclair. In other words, more real “fake news.” (Already we are seeing evidence of this on Fox News and elsewhere as they shift responsibility of the violent January 6 insurrection from the Trump-inspired rioters to Antifa and the FBI.)
The economic starvation of newspapers moves this nation closer to autocracy, a downward trajectory toward those countries whose heavy-handed press crackdowns I mentioned previously.
Journalists and newspapers have always provided that vital public oversight of government and business that defines a democratic nation. Without their diligence and courage, and without our support, our most precious freedom that we hold up as an example to the world will simply be empty words from a democracy in decline.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.