Is America Still a Beacon for Press Freedom?

(This post was co-authored by Craig Aaron and originally posted at the Huffington Post here)

The United States of America — land of the free, home of the First Amendment — is supposed to be a beacon for the rest of the world. So where do we stand in the latest global rankings of press freedom?

Thirty-sixth.

That’s not a typo. It’s a national disgrace.

The Press Freedom Index released last week by Reporters Without Borders reflects both the freedoms journalists enjoy as well as the “efforts made by the authorities to respect and ensure respect for this freedom.”

The annual rankings examine the way that financial pressures lead to self-censorship in the press, government abuses of the press, as well as murders, imprisonment and physical abuse of journalists.

While there are currently no jailed journalists in America, Reporters Without Borders said there are many concerns about the U.S. media. “Journalists are guardians of democracy whose rights must be protected around the world, not least in the United States, to which emerging democracies look for guidance, and where free speech is an inalienable right explicitly protected by the Constitution,” Reporters Without Borders declared. “This situation is unacceptable for the country known for its First Amendment rights.”

The Year in Review

The rights of journalists to freely operate came under attack just two months ago when nearly 100 journalists were arrested and detained in St. Paul, Minn., while trying to report on the Republican National Convention. But this is only one blatant example of America’s eroding press freedoms.

This year, we also discovered a covert and extensive Pentagon propaganda campaign that used the press to sway Americans’ support for the Iraq War and the war on terrorism. Deploying what the Pentagon called “message force multipliers” throughout TV, radio and print, the government tried to pass off well-coached pundits as unbiased military analysts. It’s hard to know who came out worse in this scandal: the Pentagon pundits or the media that blindly booked them again and again — no questions asked.

The media’s epic failure in the run-up to the war has been well-documented — and a few major outlets have even issued apologies for their coverage. But we’re just beginning to see the fallout from years of relentless rah-rah coverage of Wall Street, even as the writing was on the wall about an impending collapse. And we haven’t even mentioned the mostly atrocious election coverage or recited stump speeches we call “presidential debates.”

Worse yet, the same pundits who have been so colossally wrong time and again keep yapping away. There are, of course, a few courageous and diligent reporters who dare to question the conventional wisdom. But you won’t find them on TV every night.

Media Consolidation vs. Press Freedom

All of this is directly connected to runaway media consolidation. Our major news outlets are controlled by just a handful of big corporations, which have the power to set the news agenda and shift the focus from real issues to the kind of celebrity-ridden, gaffe-obsessed, lipstick-on-a-terrorist chatter that now passes for political discourse. And the mantra of “deregulation” has been as bad for the media as it’s been for our financial institutions.

And it’s just a matter of time before the current financial meltdown becomes the pretext for even more consolidation, layoffs, slashed reporting budgets and “news you can use.”

Yet somehow every time these companies come to Washington with their hands out, no one asks them if there just might be a connection between all the cutbacks — trimming content, canning veteran journalists, shuttering foreign bureaus, replacing real reporting with mindless commentary — and their lower ratings and shrinking audiences.

Reporters Without Borders, too, noted the harmful effects of media consolidation on press freedom, pointing out the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to gut media ownership limits, allowing one company to own both a major daily newspaper and broadcast station in the same market. Reporters Without Borders observed the negative impact this would have on news diversity and the ability to “protect a free, independent and diverse media pool.”

Reporters Without Borders also singled out the uncertain future of the Internet as another central concern, and called for concrete policies that would protect press freedom online. The organization lambasted phone and cable companies’ efforts to dismantle the long-standing principle of Net Neutrality, which stops companies from discriminating against online content.

“The practice of charging fees for different access speeds for broadband Internet connection undermines the right of people to be informed. Net neutrality is the core concept that has made the Internet the open media forum it is, and it must be protected,” the group said, calling on both candidates and the U.S. Congress to pass laws protecting the open Internet.

How to Get Better Media

To protect press freedom, we must make better media policies. For too long, the decisions that shape everything we see, read and hear have been made behind closed doors by corporate lobbyists and their cronies. It’s time for all Americans to have a seat at the table and a voice in this debate. This is a fight that must be joined by everyday citizens, civil libertarians and working journalists alike.

As we enter a new year and a new administration, America’s 36th-place finish is a clarion call for us to take a hard look at how we are meeting the information needs of our communities and upholding the values of the Constitution.

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