by Adam Johnson
For over two years, many in corporate media have been trumpeting the looming threat to a free press posed by Donald Trump. “Would President Trump Kill Freedom of the Press?” Slate (3/14/16) wondered in the midst of the primaries; after the election, the New York Times (1/13/17) warned of “Donald Trump’s Dangerous Attacks on the Press,” and the Atlantic (2/20/17) declared it “ A Dangerous Time for the Press and the Presidency.”
It’s strange, then, that the attack on the press that kicked off the Trump administration—the arrest and subsequent threatening of two journalists with 70 years in prison—has been met with total silence from most of these same outlets. Aaron Cantú, Santa Fe Reporter staff writer and editor at the New Inquiry (and a contributor to FAIR.org), and professional photographer Alexei Wood are both facing decades in prison for the act of covering the January 20 unrest in DC—charged with felony rioting for little more than being in the proximity of window-breaking and brick-throwing. (Prosecutors initially brought and then dropped felony charges against six other reporters, though how their cases differ from Cantú and Wood’s is unclear.)
ACLU lawyer Scott Michelman insists that these arrests “punish journalists for being near the action” and will “inevitably chill freedom of the press and, with it, First Amendment rights not only of the journalists themselves, but of all of us.”
The three most influential media reporters in US media—CNN’s Brian Stelter, New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg and Washington Post’s Erik Wemple—have completely ignored the felony rioting charges leveled against the two #J20 journalists altogether. In their dozens of columns, reports, and on-air segments since the arrests nine months ago, neither Stelter nor Rutenberg nor Wemple has made a single mention of the reporters facing jail time.
“Top Journalists Warn of Threats to Press Freedom Under Trump,” warned Stelter (11/22/17) right after Trump’s election. Citing his boss (and the person most responsible for Trump) CNN head Jeff Zucker and his colleague Christiane Amanpour, Stelter sounded the alarm on the authoritarian tendencies of the incoming Trump regime.
Jim Rutenberg (7/2/17) later joined in with a Fourth of July-themed breakdown of press freedoms under siege by the Trump administration. Rutenberg lamented Trump’s “personal attacks against journalists,” mean GIFs and misuse of the “fake news” label, as well as Republican politician Greg Gianforte’s body-slammingGuardian reporter Ben Jacobs. But Rutenberg, like Stelter, was entirely silent on the Trump Department of Justice threatening two journalists with generations in prison for the crime of reporting. For some unknown reason, this doesn’t register as an attack on the press.
The Post’s Erik Wemple—though not as vocal in his warnings about Trump’s attacks on press freedom as Stelter and Rutenberg—still holds one of the most influential media columns in the country. His total silence also speaks to the broader near-blackout on the #J20 mass arrest and prosecution.
As FAIR (7/13/17) has noted before, corporate media have expressed collective indifference to the unprecedented mass arrests of the #J20 protesters, while moral-grandstanding at the Russian government for its mass arrests of protesters in June.
The Times’ Rutenberg found time for not one, not two, but four different articles (9/18/16, 12/4/16, 4/17/17, 9/17/17) on the corrosive effects on American democracy of the Russian government-run outlet RT (Russia Today)—a network that reaches less than 30,000 people per show, or roughly 0.3 percent of the ratings of Judge Judy.
Evidently, the topic of RT needed more attention, since profiles in PBS, Fortune, Politico (four of them), Time Magazine, Washington Post (half dozen or so), Mediaite, The Guardian, Bloomberg, Foreign Affairs, Wall Street Journal, Daily Beast, National Review, Christian Science Monitor, Slate, Washington Times, BuzzFeed, New York Times (another Times profile) and Huffington Post were presumably not enough. The fact that there are millions more Americans reading profiles handwringing over RT than actually watching it wouldn’t stop intrepid media critic Jim Rutenberg from speaking truth to power…in another country.
Stelter and Rutenberg would not respond to FAIR’s request for comment. Wemple told FAIR, “There are hundreds of worthy and important stories that I don’t get to.” But for journalists covering US media in 2017, the prosecution of Cantú and Wood is not just another story: These are journalists facing decades in prison for doing exactly what journalists are supposed to be doing—covering the opposition to an administration that establishment media reporters have been warning about since 2015.