Advice for Journalists in the New USA

November 28, 2016

Columbia Journalism Review:


Ordinarily, it is you who offer the rest of the world advice about press freedom, and the accountability architecture of democratic societies, so I understand that it may be strange to hear it coming back at you, but this will not be the last inversion that the election of Donald Trump delivers.

You have some deep resources to draw on for the battle that is closing around you. For starters there is your Constitution, which offers stronger protections than just about any comparable legal framework. And your money, greatly diminished, and unevenly distributed to be sure, but orders of magnitude more plentiful than what your counterparts elsewhere have to call upon. You also have reserves of talent, creativity, and commitment far larger than you are given credit for by your critics, and right now by angry, bewildered, and wounded friends.

But one thing you don’t have, is experience of what to do when things start to get genuinely bad.

Take it from those of us who have worked in places where the institutional fabric is thinner, the legal protections less absolute, and the social license to operate less secure. Not outright dictatorships, but majoritarian democracies where big men—and they are usually men—polish their image in the mirror of state media or social media, while slowly squeezing the life out of independent institutions.

When Donald Trump ditched his press pool twice within days of being elected, and launched a series of Twitter attacks on The New York Times, a lot of you sounded surprised. As if you expected him to become a different person once the anointing oil of the Electoral College had touched his brow. Of course there was nothing surprising about his conduct. Rule number 1 of surviving autocracy, as Masha Gessen reminds us, is “Believe the Autocrat.”

When Mr. Trump threatened during the campaign to review America’s libel law framework, he was setting out his stall, not bluffing. When he threatened to sue, when he mocked a disabled reporter, when he made clear his affinity for Vladimir Putin and Peter Thiel, he was issuing a warning.

Of course, not being surprised doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be outraged. As Gessen also wrote, to survive autocracy, you have to preserve outrage, and your free press is a beautiful, important thing, even when it is besieged and bedraggled. Perhaps especially then.

The rest of us get irritated with you at times, in the manner of less privileged relatives, but you have given the rest of us a good deal over the years, standards to aspire to, innovation to build on, voices of great clarity. Here is some advice in return, mostly from India and South Africa, where an ostensibly free press is confronted with regulatory, economic, and political pressures that come with majoritarianism.


1. Get used to the end of access as you know it.

The president-elect loves to see himself on magazine covers. Don’t kid yourself that this means you will enjoy meaningful access to his administration on the terms you are familiar with. There will be a lot less trading of micro-scoops for favorable coverage, the transactional stock-in trade of capital city reporting everywhere. In India for example, after Narendra Modi took power, journalists were banned from government offices they had once wandered freely. They were kicked off the presidential plane. Modi granted no interviews to the domestic press for over a year. His ministers and senior officials whispered privately that they had been ordered not to speak to the press.

Losing this kind of access isn’t all bad. It reminds you that your job is to hold power to account, rather than to join its club. Outsider status can be bracing. But it comes with the choking off of other kinds. Twitter and Instagram posts substitute for the tough back-and-forth of press conferences, officials stonewall legitimate queries, and you wait to publish, because right of reply matters, accuracy matters to you. Not to them.

So you take to the law. But freedom of information filings will be slowed-walked to death or irrelevance, as they increasingly are in India, and other countries where the first flush of enthusiasm over FOIA legislation has replaced with a deepening chill.

In one case I was involved in in South Africa three presidents fought us over seven years and two trips to the constitutional court before we won. By then it was too late to do anything but prove a point.

So you have to cultivate other ways to get the data that you need and the democratic process demands.

There are going to be a plenty of officials who are deeply uncomfortable with the direction of the administration. Some of them are your sources already, no doubt. But you will need them much more. Especially the awkward squad. The mid-level career bureaucrats, the ones deep down the cc list, the ones who may not have the secretary’s ear, or the inside scoop on how many almonds the president eats at night.

And you are going to need a knowledge of strong encryption if you are going to keep them safe under a regime that has the most sophisticated surveillance capabilities ever imagined, and a president-elect with history of vindictiveness.

You might think the worst of access culture is already over in Washington. We’ve seen the videos from the White House correspondents dinner. It really isn’t.

So it will feel strange, this new world. It cuts to your sense of who you are, the proximity to power and the capacity for actual influence that makes up for your shitty paycheck and the trolls all over your timeline, but on balance, it is a more honest place, and it is the only one available.

2. Get used to spending more time in court.

You are going to need to litigate to get access to information, but you are also going to have to defend, a lot. Some of the attacks will come from proxies suing over your reporting on corruption, conflicts of interest, and general sleaze. We never lost a suit like that during my time in South Africa, and there were plenty, but we burned countless hours and money we really didn’t have, both of which would have been better spent on more reporting.

In India, where the protections are weaker, obscure activists in country towns launch suits against reporters, editors, and proprietors routinely, seeking immense damages in the overburdened and sometimes compromised provincial courts. Anyone who has worked in an Indian newsroom can describe for you what the words “chilling effect” really mean.

You obviously can’t back down in the face of these efforts, but you can use them as crusading opportunities, both spreading the story and popularizing your sense of mission. You should be quite unembarrassed about this. You should probably also think about some kind of pooled legal defence fund for smaller outlets.

Much more frightening, of course, are the moments when the proxies step aside, and the full might of the security establishment is brought to bear. Your Espionage Act is a truly terrible piece of legislation. Some kind of elite consensus has spared reporters and editors its full force since 1917, but word is the elite consensus is over.

Being fingerprinted for journalism is a very strange experience, you don’t want it to become a normal one.

3. Get used to being stigmatized as “opposition.”

Mr Trump was quick out of the blocks on this one with his “professional protesters incited by the media” tweet. His subsequent attacks on the Times fit a familiar pattern: call out one prominent enemy pour encourager les autres, and let the trolls do the rest. This will escalate. The basic idea is simple: to delegitimize accountability journalism by framing it as partisan.

In South Africa linking the press with the opposition was a routine trope, on really bad days ruling party figures would add the CIA or foreign capitalists.

A member of parliament once asked me, during hearings on a draconian new intelligence law that the national editors’ body objected to “tell me, are you still South African when you go home at night?”

Narendra Modi, on the other hand, never names his enemies, but the liberal-leaning NDTV carries the brunt of his ire, with one of its channels recently ordered to go off air for a day as punishment for allegedly compromising security with its coverage of a militant attack. And his ardent social media fans do much of the work for him. Steel yourself and take a look at Barkha Dutt’s mentions sometime to see the Indian version of Steven Bannon’s white nationalist horde.

“Paid media,” “presstitutes,” “Lutyens journalists” (the equivalent of Beltway insiders) are all routine slurs from India’s ruling party, meant to associate the press with the old, corrupt elite and the opposition Congress Party.

The frustrating thing about this approach is that it works quite well, and it is going to work REALLY well in America next year.

Why should anyone care about your investigation of the president’s conflicts of interest, or his tax bills, if they emanate from the political opposition? The scariest thing about “fake news” is that all news becomes fake. Yours too.

The challenge is to maintain a tough, independent, journalistic politics, a politics of accountability, equity and the rule of law without straightforwardly aligning with the partisan opposition. In places like Venezuela, where private media have been forced into a purely oppositional stance, the result has been a shrinking of real spaces for dissent and accountability.

This is a tough line to walk, because people on both sides of the political divide actually want you to fail at it. But it is among your most important tasks.

4. When they can’t regulate you away, they will try to buy you out or suck up your oxygen.

Congressional funding for public broadcasting is limited here, as is its audience, so one avenue of media capture is foreclosed. But crony billionaires will be lurking all around the fringes of a distressed industry, happy to tolerate losses in return for a voice. India has hundreds of loss-making TV channels and newspapers. In South Africa, the main English language daily group has been bought out by a presidential crony, and gutted. But you can look closer to home for examples, perhaps to Las Vegas.

Some media owners, already ensconced, will tack to the prevailing wind. Gently at first, so you hardly notice it. Completely in the end.

And where that doesn’t work, the president’s people will start, or boost, their own alternatives, and seek to route around you. Breitbart is just beginning.

5. You are going to have to get organized.

My sense is that American journalists aren’t much for formal structures that reach across the profession and represent its interests. The protection of the First Amendment, and your establishment credentials have been enough, by and large. You don’t have a press council, or a meaningful editors’ body, or strong unions.

In the new world, journalism Twitter isn’t going to be an adequate safeguard.

You need to band together around positive principles—independence, accountability, ethical standards, and the defence of your rights, which must be fought for both in the broad constitutional brushstrokes and the narrow detail of regulation and practice. Judging by the recent barrage of anti-semitic and racist threats to journalists, you will also need to address both the climate of hate and specific concerns around safety.

Organizing journalists is a great deal worse than herding cats. We have egos that are at once giant, and fragile. We like to own the story, all of it. We are rubbish at management. But some among you have these skills. Get it together to push them forward.

Also, find some allies outside of your usual circles. In South Africa, for example, our campaigns for freedom of information were vastly more credible when they were undertaken in partnership with organizations with their roots poor communities who could speak to the importance of transparency in ensuring access to clean water, safe streets, and healthcare.


I’M SORRY TO LECTURE. But I am worried. We all are. In the countries where I’ve spent my working life, the press still matters, but there is less of it, and the whole accountability ecosystem has become unbalanced. For all its real and urgent problems, US journalism is still the City on a Hill. The fading of its light will be disastrous not just for Americans, but for all of us.

Nic Dawes is the former editor in chief of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian and was until recently Chief Content Officer at India’s Hindustan Times. He now heads media at Human Rights Watch in New York.


19 Responses to “Advice for Journalists in the New USA”

  1. Excellent article Peter.
    The Beast is growing in power and spread and those that have been and are creating it with the magnificent delusion that they have it in control to achieve their purposes will realise they have the tiger by the tail.

  2. Tom Bates Says:

    The Beast is a apt title for lies, distortions, and half truths. Science has been fighting that kind of reason since we came down from the trees long before anybody had invented the word science in any language. AGW is a scam, always has been a scam and always will be a scam. if you look at the actual studies, the ones of doom and gloom have one thing in common, they are all models which assume the worse without a shred of evidence to do that. The models ignore the real world and project based on baseless science and tea leaves which is claimed to be science. Since the objective is redistribution of the wealth of this world the leftists have jumped on board from you UN thug to your local politician who sees a new source of wealth and power in carbon taxes.

    If you were real journalists you would question the claims and look up the contrary voices and put that into your stories. Here is one example, Hansen claims the oceans will rise many feet by 2030, all the news had big maps of cities being flooded, a lot of Miami in flooded stories. The real ocean rise per NOAA tidal gauge measurements on land not going up or down is 3 inches in the next 100 years, French measurements since 1805, 4 inches in the next 100 years, NASA planning 5 inches by 2100 AD, not a word about that from either this blog or the news.

    Models, 120 were checked , not a single one tracked real world climate in the past and those were the models Hansen used to make this prediction. Actual CO2 rise warming has been measured, 0.034F increase due to the rise. Arctic ice was ice free 8500-6500 BP per NASA, you notice the polar bears are still here and future city sites on the coast like London or New York were not under water. Antarctica as a whole is gaining ice and has for decades. The record they talk about when referring to arctic ice starts in 1979, never mind the past. Miami does have a flooding problem, it is caused by land subsidence from over pumping and diversion of surface water, it has an agency to manage the problem. Not a word from this blog or any other progressive news about that. So it goes.

    • toby52 Says:

      Thanks for all the citations and sources, Tom. From which alt-right website did you lift all that bullcrap? For example, James Hansen made no such claim. If the Arctic was ice-free, then where was all that water now frozen? Sea level must have been much higher than it is now, unless conservation of mass is another law of physics that must be repealed for the good of fossil fuel plutocrats. Tell me you did not make all this up yourself.

      • Tommy doesn’t seem to need facts. And any credible links he has posted have basically debunked the points he tries to make. Not sure what he thinks he is achieving here. But the same old recycled lies are getting pretty boring…..

  3. Tom Bates Says:

    The guy from South AFrica lives in a country run by thugs in the past before the white man showed up, was run by thugs who were white, and is know run by thugs who are black again, Africa as a whole has the same problem. Democracy is a tiny pasting of liberty on top of a huge cake of thugs who rule by religion, tribes and fear. Most of the world runs on the same pattern. Liberty is a tiny slice of the whole world and yes the USA is that house on the hill shining with liberty. Many Americans died to make and keep that liberty, many will die to keep that liberty. Journalist in America have a unique opportunity to practice liberty, something they cannot practice in 90 percent of the world. That is why I ask the news to simply print the news, all of it.

    • toby52 Says:

      Jacob Zuma is a perfect prototype of Donald Trump. Just like Trumps denies science in his bizarre beliefs on climate and vaccination, Zuma announced that one could prevent AIDS by taking a shower after sexual intercourse. Maybe The Donald should try it, apparently he had done some bed-hopping in his time. And like Zuma, boasts about it later. Populists are landmarks on the road to fascism.

  4. andrewfez Says:

    It goes further than that. The MSM is corporate propaganda that has suffered from a string of merger and acquisitions that the weak FTC didn’t blink an eye at, such that it is all owned by just a handful of billionaires. It often just works as a stenographer for military and central intelligence so that these entities can plant unchallenged propaganda in the minds of American voters to justify unnecessary expenditure and war. We no longer have a functioning democracy, but instead an oligarchy.

    The corporate propaganda machine seems to at this point want to rekindle the Cold War. We made promises to Russia in the 90’s that we would not expand NATO into Eastern Europe; we broke those promises and when Russia responded we sanctioned them so heavily that their economy is now shrinking. We’re in a war with Russia in Syria over who gets to run their oil/gas pipeline through the country to supply the EU with these fuels (US ME allies vs. Russian ME allies).

    I’m not conceding the narrative that state sponsored Russian hackers were behind Wikileaks because the selfsame entities that proclaim such were the ones telling us Iraq had nuclear capabilities and WMDs. And the NYT, which recently wrote a ‘sorry’ letter about how they’re really going to start focusing on good journalism again, were right there promoting these things, writing Iraq’s importation of aluminum tubes was somehow proof that their nuclear program was humming along. However I’m willing to concede that Russian hackers run circles around the US cyber warfare operatives and that Russia probably knows everything we know regarding intelligence because 1) the CIA limits its talent pool to people that have never smoked a joint or participated in any recreational drug use in their life and they are missing out on really great talent because of such; and 2) Russian hackers are split into competing groups motivated by the sport of competition. And it does make sense that they would want to promote the guy that is least likely to keep pushing his thumb so heavily down on them; Clinton was an obvious neoconservative war hawk; Trump is a wildcard and a puppet to be played.

    But here’s Washington Post trying to rekindle the Cold War by means of a low quality smear campaign. We’ve already had one instance of a radical feminist university professor (i.e. a Marxist) write a now retracted article naming dozens of ‘fake news’ sights in a witch hunting effort, which ended up just being sights that leaned against her political ideology. And now we have this:

    “The Washington Post on Thursday night promoted the claims of a new, shadowy organization that smears dozens of U.S. news sites that are critical of U.S. foreign policy as being “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda.””

    “Yet the article is rife with obviously reckless and unproven allegations, and fundamentally shaped by shoddy, slothful journalistic tactics. It was not surprising to learn that, as BuzzFeed’s Sheera Frenkel noted, “a lot of reporters passed on this story.” Its huge flaws are self-evident. But the Post gleefully ran with it and then promoted it aggressively, led by its Executive Editor Marty Baron”

    “In other words, the individuals behind this newly created group are publicly branding journalists and news outlets as tools of Russian propaganda — even calling on the FBI to investigate them for espionage — while cowardly hiding their own identities. The group promoted by the Post thus embodies the toxic essence of Joseph McCarthy, but without the courage to attach individual names to the blacklist.”

    “More troubling still, PropOrNot listed numerous organizations on its website as “allied” with it, yet many of these claimed “allies” told The Intercept, and complained on social media, they have nothing to do with the group and had never even heard of it before the Post published its story.”

    “Some of the websites on PropOrNot’s blacklist do indeed publish Russian propaganda — namely Sputnik News and Russia Today, which are funded by the Russian government. But many of the aforementioned blacklisted sites are independent, completely legitimate news sources that often receive funding through donations or foundations and have been reporting and analyzing news for many years.”

    “What the Post does not mention in its report is that Watts, one of the specialists it relies on for its claims, previously worked as an FBI special agent on a Joint Terrorism Task Force and as the executive officer of the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center. As Fortune’s Ingram wrote of the group, it is “a conservative think tank funded and staffed by proponents of the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia.””


    I recommend the following pundits for a less corporatist interpretation of what is going on: David Pakman Show, TYT Politics, TYT main show (often get things wrong but are good at sniffing out government corruption), and Secular Talk, all on YouTube.

    • webej Says:

      A lot of disparate points. Although the CIA and other intelligence agencies are severely limited by group think and function as a filter that only admits people like those already there, I hardly think smoking a little weed is the most essential point. Whether the Russian hackers are so much better, I cannot judge, but I’m sure all the missing emails can simply be accessed in stores at the NSA. The NSA also has trace material and metadata on much of the leaked data, not by hacking, but simply because they save everything that goes over the wires (they have “secret” back doors into everything, though court orders mandate everybody to keep silence). Although the material the NSA has may not contain definitive proof of anything, you can be sure there is more evidence there than what all the speculation till now has been feeding on.

      The whole Russia narrative (dastardly Russians are behind everything) is silly misinformation for gullible audiences. It is a good exercise to substitute Jews and Jewish everywhere you read Russia/Russian. Doing so will immediately illuminate what kind of propaganda it resembles.

      • andrewfez Says:

        Those are good points about the CIA. Mine were born from tertiary information and I thusly withdraw them in favor of yours. The internet age has created a constellation of information, disinformation, and hybrids of such, that’s it’s hard to keep up.

    • florasforum Says:

      Thank you for the voice of reason. We’re being played by both sides; it’s not about bogeyman Trump or the Russians. Anyone who was paying attention to the media blackout on Bernie Sanders, or on the Wikileaks, or on Standing Rock, or anything else of importance this year happening in the U.S. should know that by now. Yes, it’s tough to acknowledge, painful even, but the sooner we see it’s the mainstream media in cahoots with government and big business, the sooner we’ll be able to do something to get journalism, and our lives, back on track. And hopefully save the planet! TYT is my go-to for journalism these days – the others have been a huge disappointment. THEY ARE BOUGHT.

  5. toby52 Says:

    I live in Europe, and the news that you don;t get is that Russia never changed. The communist nomenklatura just withdrew into the shadows, stole the industries that were supposed to be the property of the Russian people, while depriving them of the healthcare and education they were promised. The West went along with this because it was corporate-friendly, it was justified as the “big bang” of capitalism, that a free market would inevitably lead to democracy, another theory disproved later in Iraq. That was the real crime. The elite played dumb under the compliant buffoon that was Yeltsin, until they were ready.

    Eastern European countries were not fooled – they knew that Russia was just biding its time, and Imperial Russia has duly re-emerged under Tsar Vladimir. Putin makes no secret that he wants to re-establish Russian dominance over all the states of its former “empire”. The NATO expansion was the pull of Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and others, not the push of the USA.

    • webej Says:

      Russia, the eternal enemy, always the incorporation of unreasoned malificence. Dark combination of conspiracy and mythology.

      • andrewfez Says:

        It’s looking more and more like the gut instinct that the Red Scare was just a manufactured distraction against the content of the DNC emails was correct: Details in the video:

        Kinda odd watching the Democrats use an old Republican strategy, but a testament to how far the Dems have fallen in the last decade or two.

        • greenman3610 Says:

          Cockburn is a noted climate change denier

          • andrewfez Says:

            Are you sure you’re not thinking of Alexander Cockerburn who used to debate George Monbiot about climate? This is his brother Andrew – he seems to specialize in criticism of US foreign policy and national security:

            From wiki:

            “His film The Red Army, produced for PBS in 1981, was the first in-depth report on the serious deficiencies of Soviet military power and won a Peabody Award. In 1982, he published the book The Threat – Inside the Soviet Military Machine (Random House), which examined the same topic in greater depth. He subsequently published many articles on the subject of U.S. and Soviet military power as well as lecturing at numerous military bases, foreign policy forums, and colleges and innumerable television shows. The collapse of the Soviet Union, and subsequent revelation that his analysis of the Soviet military had been entirely correct rendered his subject otiose. He then began covering middle eastern subjects, including the 1991 documentary on the after-effects of the first Gulf war, The War We Left Behind, which he co-produced for PBS with Leslie Cockburn.”

          • greenman3610 Says:

            perhaps, if in error, apologies.

  6. Paul Whyte Says:

    Peter. I really appreciate that you have shifted focus to the post truth nature of discourse that electing Trump means for the world on your blog.

    I think it’s clear that we have these next 4 years to really begin to take down coal and the deniers to stand a 50:50 chance of getting onto the 1.5 C pathway. I expect that coal may have peaked but that does not really help us with gas picking up the slack.

    I still think that this pathway needs to be shot for after 2020 but thats for then.

    Getting to look at the details of the pseudo reality that coal, oil and gas has constructed looks like the task just now.

  7. ubrew12 Says:

    “billionaires will be lurking all around the fringes of a distressed industry, happy to tolerate losses in return for a voice” I studied Climate Science decades ago, when Global Warming was a ‘no-brainer’ and saying so carried no political overtones. It was a simple scientific fact nobody cared about because, one day, in the ‘future’, human beings would do the logical thing faced with such an obvious truth. Today, I can’t mention the bizarre disconnect in global sea ice area that’s occurred in the last 3 months on my facebook feed without an old friend with a high school education telling me we don’t really know what sea ice looked like before 1979, so this could be ‘normal’. The Earth, after all, is ‘really old’, he says. And his is the voice, I know, of ‘billionaires lurking in the background, tolerating losses for a voice’. Which leads us here, to this article. I agree, Crocks is doing the right thing to shine a light on the alternative reality being constructed over the bones of traditional media by billionaires with a voice. But, it is also very sad that we ended up here. It’s possible to stand back a bit and think about how very sad that is. We were just going to go on offense a bit, for Science. Now we’re hard on Defense, defending reality itself against a Tidal Wave of well-funded ignorance.

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