Since its inception 35 years ago, the Committee to Protect Journalists has steadfastly defended the right of journalists worldwide to report the news without fear of violence, imprisonment or death. That advocacy usually involves journalists living and working under repressive governments where a free press is nonexistent and death threats against reporters are tragically common. Rarely, if ever, does CPJ’s work apply to journalists working in the United States.
The 2016 presidential election has changed all that. This week, the independent organization made an unprecedented move and renounced GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump as a threat to press freedom in the United States, something it called “unknown in modern history.”
“Trump has refused to condemn attacks on journalists by his supporters,” CPJ said. … “A Trump presidency would represent a threat to press freedom in the United States, but the consequences for the right of journalists around the world could be far more serious. Any failure of the United States to uphold its own standards emboldens dictators and despots to restrict the media in their own countries. This appears to be of no concern to Trump, who indicated that he has no inclination to challenge governments on press freedom and the treatment of journalists.”
Since its endorsement of Hillary Clinton in September, the Arizona Republic has become an unlikely victim of the very reprisals that CPJ works so hard to prevent. The newspaper has received a barrage of threats from angry readers vowing to “burn down” its offices and “blow up” reporters, invoking the name of Republic reporter Don Bolles, who was killed in a car bomb in 1976 while investigating organized crime. Bolles’s Datsun is on display in the Newseum’s News Corporation News History Gallery in an exhibit on murderous threats to U.S. journalists. Bolles’s name is among the more than 2,200 journalists whose names are etched on the Newseum’s Journalists Memorial.
In a powerful column that detailed how Republic staffers have been spit on and bullied in response to the conservative newspaper’s first-ever endorsement of a Democratic candidate for president, publisher Mi-Ai Parrish turned words into a weapon against the vile threats.
“To all of you who asked why we endorsed — or what right we had to do so — I give you my mother. She grew up under an occupying dictatorship, with no right to an education, no free press, no freedom of religion, no freedom to assemble peaceably, no right to vote. No right to free speech. She raised a journalist who understood not to take these rights for granted. … The journalists I introduced you to here walk into the newsroom every day to do their jobs. When they do, they pass by an inscription that fills an entire wall, floor to ceiling. It is 45 words long. It is an idea that is in my thoughts a lot these days. It is the First Amendment.”
In this tense political climate, we seem to have passed the point where simply cancelling a subscription — like some readers of The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Dallas Morning News, and the Houston Chronicle did after those newspapers broke tradition and endorsed Clinton — exacts a heavy price. We now appear to be reentering a troubling phase in U.S. history when 19th century readers like the Republic’s used vigilante justice to destroy newspaper presses and when publishers of all races and gender were run out of town or killed.
The first name on the Journalists Memorial is Elijah Parish Lovejoy, abolitionist publisher of The Alton (Ill.) Observer, who in 1837 was shot and killed two days before his 35th birthday defending his newly delivered press from a pro-slavery mob. Lovejoy had published stories against slavery and lynching; mobs had previously seized three other presses and thrown them in the Mississippi River.
In 1892, black publisher Ida B. Wells was run out of Memphis, and her Free Speech and Headlight newspaper was destroyed, because of her tireless editorials against lynching and for race and gender equality. If CPJ had existed back then, there is no doubt the organization would have defended Lovejoy and Wells and stood up to tyranny.
Before his death, Lovejoy wrote about the constant threats against him and the principles that propelled him to risk his life speaking out against injustice. His message back then has a familiar ring in the 21st century.
“We distinctly avow it to be our settled purpose, never, while life lasts, to yield to this new system of attempting to destroy, by means of mob violence, the right of conscience, the freedom of opinion, and of the press.”