Saturday marked the first White House correspondents’ dinner in three years and the first one with an actual president in attendance since 2016. The most notable part of an event that has felt in recent years like a stale and hackneyed tradition—even before the former guy’s multiyear boycott—came when Daily Show host Trevor Noah stuck the landing as he closed out the evening with a gentle admonition to U.S. journalists. Noah ended the event with these words:
Ask yourself this question: If Russian journalists who are losing their livelihoods … and their freedom for daring to report on what their own government is doing, if they had the freedom to write any words, to show any stories or to ask any questions, if they had, basically, what you have, would they be using it in the same way that you do?
Observers were quick to praise the sentiment, and it is of course worthy of praise. But it also highlighted the very problem it sought to illuminate: Chiding a glittering ballroom full of celebrity journalists about the urgency of reporting on the decline of freedom and the rise of illiberalism is akin to scolding the shrimp in the shrimp cocktail platter about the threat of rising oceans. The insight was a necessary corrective, yes, but it was premised on two category errors.
The first error was that Russian journalists are not free and Americans are really free. Of course, American journalists are more readily able to write words and ask questions, but it is also manifestly true that U.S. journalists are far less free today than people like to believe we are. The fact is that media freedom around the world has been in swift decline, hastened by both COVID and growing illiberalism, and that the American press freedom index has been neither chart-topping nor record-breaking in recent years. According to Reporters Without Borders, the United States ranks 44th in the world in press freedom, barely in the C-plus range if you’re giving the country a letter grade. Even a cursory look at the Press Freedom Tracker for the United States shows that gag orders, prosecutions of journalists, and physical attacks and equipment damage are all on the rise, and access for journalism to courthouses and statehouses is a persistent challenge. Add to that mix the facts that social media is almost wholly controlled by a handful of white billionaires, that news consolidation threatens press freedom on a daily basis, and that journalism itself is slowly asphyxiating, with a more democracy-promoting alternative yet to materialize, and yeah we aren’t really living the halcyon days.
All of which leads us to the second category error. It’s not merely that the American free press is not quite as free as we’d prefer to believe, but also that American democracy itself is not nearly as free as Noah implied. And while Noah and his colleagues in the ballroom have quite creditably reported on that fact—on election suppression, and entrenched minority rule, and speech restraints, and the events of Jan. 6, 2021, and the continuing consequences of the lack of accountability for those things—the truth is that none of that news is terribly sticky or new or exciting as a story. In fact, the U.S. media pays stunningly little sustained attention to the possible looming death of freedom and democracy in the U.S. because it’s vastly easier to seek to entertain than to document abstract creeping illiberalism at home.
Consider just for example last week’s essay from Judge J. Michael Luttig, who offered an explicit warning about the ways in which the 2020 election was a dry run for stealing the 2024 election. The argument was shocking coming from an avowed lifelong Republican judge. It was, however, also fundamentally the same analysis professor Richard Hasen has been offering for more than a year, that pro-democracy organizations have been reporting on consistently with alarm, that academics have been on fire over for years, and that has been the subject of innumerable open letters as scholars have warned repeatedly about what’s been taking place at every level of voting rights. As the nation reemerges from more than two years of pandemic life with mounting inflation worries as the chief public concern, it’s really, really, really hard to get people to care about the same problem of authoritarian creep that has been going on for years and that is just always getting incrementally worse.
Yes, the media has done the big stories about what is happening on the ground to elections apparatuses, elections officials, and democratic collapse. The Washington Post may have devoted great resources to the tick tock of Jan. 6, but you can only really write—and get readers to click on—so many pieces about the independent state legislature doctrine, even if we do try and try and try and try. The truth is that the ballroom gala on the decline of democracy would probably happen at an airport Holiday Inn somewhere in Muncie, Indiana, and at the conclusion—after all in attendance had nodded vigorously at the 30-minute keynote by some famous academic who has been warning of this every day for years, and no longer has any friends on the faculty—everyone would just go home and feel sad.
So while Noah’s fundamental critique is correct, and every working journalist in the world should do some soul-searching about what they are doing to protect freedom every day, the larger truth is that we have constructed a world of journalism in which most consumers don’t want to buy that news and most purveyors don’t really care to sell it. Faulting the press for systemic failures around what “the press” means, or actually does every day, is quite literally the definition of shooting the messenger. The U.S. media is not “free” both because there are increasing economic and ideological constraints on news-gathering and news publication, but it’s also not “free” because it depends on a system that has no meaningful or sustained interest in reporting on freedom. That is a much bigger problem than flighty reporters and their insufficient ethical or political seriousness. It is the problem of an entire machinery of news-gathering and news dissemination that lacks that necessary degree of ethical or political seriousness.
Of course, though, the glittering ballroom of celebrities and journalists would be the one venue we would use to assure ourselves that we are in fact still in possession of a robust fourth estate—a broadly free press that is checking power, asking hard questions, and issuing clarion warnings should the far-off day on which illiberalism might be nigh ever arrive.
Well. Illiberalism is nigh. It voted in 2016, it rampaged in the Capitol in 2021, it formed the basis of myriad new election restrictions in 2022, and it may well steal the election in 2024. It is dictating what children may read, what teachers may teach, how private companies may speak, how parents can raise their own children, and it’s conscripting citizen vigilantes as its lawful enforcers. We should report on that as though we are in Russia because, in real ways, many Americans are already experiencing similar levels of repression. Women in Texas have been in reproductive Russia since September of 2021. Freedom is a continuum and not a touchdown dance, and nearly everyone in media knows this. The problem isn’t so much that we in the press aren’t doing our jobs. It’s that we know nobody would come to watch a show about how now that the occupiers and election deniers have temporarily and mostly—though not entirely—vacated the Capitol, they’re actually still out there, preparing for the next attacks, that very little is being done to stop them, and that this is generally considered neither interesting nor news.