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Press Freedom Day

Yesterday was World Press Freedom Day. I’d planned to publish this post then, but my mother was in the in ER. (She's out now; the rollercoaster continues.)

A functional, free press is a vital part of the foundation of democracy, right alongside free and open elections. It's impossible to have an educated voting populace without it - and you can't have a democracy without educated voters. It's incredibly important to have people out there dedicated to uncovering the truth and speaking truth to power.

According to Reporters Without Borders, the US ranks 44th in the world for press freedom. During Trump's last year in office, nearly 400 journalists were assaulted on the job, and over 130 were detained. Only 40% of Americans trust the media; among conservatives, the figure is considerably worse.

To control a populace, authoritarians first seek to undermine the press. The Nazi-era term for this was Lügenpresse, which literally translates to lying press. The Trump-era term was lifted almost verbatim: fake news. It continues to do harm.

As well as in the broader societal sphere, this discourse extends to industry: in tech, we’ve had our own anti-press movements that seek to undermine free and fair reporting. It’s always abhorrent.

Which isn’t to say that the press shouldn’t be criticized: oversight of journalism is also journalism, and conversations about the nature of reporting are important. No institution can be unassailable, and no journalist can be above reproach. I particularly welcome conversations about diversity and equity in newsrooms and how the demographics of reporting staff affect the stories they produce. Journalists are imperfect, because everyone is imperfect; regardless, they should have unfettered access to information and receive protection under the law. The work they do makes freedom and democracy possible.

Similarly, whistleblowers. We depend on people who are willing to call out wrongdoing. Daniel Ellsberg revealing the Pentagon Papers allowed Americans to understand the full scope of the Vietnam War for the first time. Edward Snowden allowed Americans to understand that they were the subjects of illegal mass surveillance. Chelsea Manning allowed Americans to understand war crimes that were committed in their names. Each of them faced severe repercussions; each of them allowed American voters to better understand the actions of their government.

In the midst of the “fake news” culture war, there’s been a lot of talk about how to battle misinformation. One of those tactics has sometimes been to promote certain, trusted publications. The intention is noble: there’s no doubt in my mind that the New York Times is more trustworthy than InfoWars, for example. But the unintended effect is to shut out new publications that haven’t managed to build a reputation yet - and in particular, new publications that might be run by people of color, who are underrepresented in establishment media. It also has the effect of potentially discrediting whistleblower accounts that can’t find purchase in mainstream publications, creating an “approved news” that can unintentionally obscure important facts.

Instead, I’m more excited - albeit with some reservations - by software projects that add context on a story by showing how other outlets have reported it. I’m committed to an open web that allows anyone to publish, even if that means tolerating the InfoWars and Epoch Times dumpster fires alongside more legitimate sources. Context and critical reasoning are key.

The press isn’t glamorous; it’s not always convenient or comfortable. But it’s absolutely crucial for a functional democracy and a free society. Because power is at stake, there will always be people who want to undermine or control journalism - and our job as democratic citizens is to refuse to allow them.

I’m grateful for the press. I’m grateful for democracy. Let’s be vigilant.