Congress expert Norman Ornstein on what the debate over the debt limit says about dysfunction in Congress, and his ideas for how to fix it.
Guest Host: Lisa Desjardins
Last Saturday night Jason Rezaian, the former Iran bureau chief for the Washington Post, appeared at a correspondents’ dinner and joked that the audience there sure beat solitary confinement. It was a light-hearted moment underscoring a serious, growing issue. In July of 2014 Rezaian was arrested in Tehran and imprisoned until January of this year. His plight became a symbol of the many risks journalists face around the world.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 72 reporters were killed for doing their jobs. Nearly 200 are unjustly jailed. Today, we look at the dangers of journalism and the reality of censorship.
Clarification from Dana Priest on May 4, 2016: “The local media did cover the water problems from the start. Some critics have made the case that they could have been more aggressive, but I think that’s a different point than the too-stark one I made yesterday. It was really the national media (and statewide Michigan media) who were late to the story, which is what I probably conflated in my mind, having read some of that criticism.” More information.
- Dana Priest Reporter, The Washington Post, professor of journalism, University of Maryland
- Delphine Halgand US director, Reporters without Borders
- Paul Farhi Staff writer, The Washington Post
- Idrees Ali National security correspondent, Reuters
How You Can Help
During our show on World Press Freedom Day, a panel of prominent experts discussed the dangers journalists face around the world. If you've been inspired by their conversation, two of our guests - Delphine Halgand of Reporters Without Borders and Dana Priest of the Washington Post - provide their top resources and suggestions below.
MS. LISA DESJARDINSThanks for joining us. I'm Lisa Desjardins of the PBS NewsHour sitting in for Diane Rehm. A reporter's right to investigate a story and inform the public is something that we take mostly for granted here in the U.S. But in many places around the world, the situation is vastly different. More than 70 journalists were killed last year for doing their jobs and an estimated 200 are in prison.
MS. LISA DESJARDINSJoining me in studio to talk about press freedoms on this World Press Freedom Day are Dana Priest of the University of Maryland and The Washington Post, Paul Farhi also of The Washington Post and Delphine Halgand of Reporters Without Borders. Thank you all for joining us.
MS. DANA PRIESTThanks for having us.
MR. PAUL FARHIGood morning.
MS. DELPHINE HALGANDThank you.
DESJARDINSDana, I want to start with you. You say that representatives of independent media are under assault worldwide. What's going on?
PRIESTWell, The Washington Post let me and a couple of my best students travel the world last year doing -- looking at this issue. And there's really several trends that have caused the problems that are greater than since the wall came down in the Soviet Union. The Arab Spring countries, there's such a backlash. They went so backwards. The governments now are imposing a very authoritarian view of the media, cracking down on people, absolutely cracking down on any kind of independent media throughout the Middle East, except for Tunisia.
PRIESTThere's also what I would call the Putin-ization of Eastern Europe. Some of the countries that we really had high hopes for, Hungary, Poland and, of course, Russia, where there was an independent media right after the fall of the Soviet Union. Putin and now in Poland and Hungary and elsewhere has really strangled independent media through intimidation, violent intimidation, but also economic weapons, mainly advertising, and he has, as well as his Easter European colleagues, now increased state-run media, built up new apparatuses to really take over media.
DESJARDINSHe owns -- he controls about 100 percent of the national television stations. And then, a couple other things have also added to this trend. One is the strengthening, unfortunately, of organized crime, especially in Mexico. This is drug cartels, plus organized crime. In Mexico, in Central America and in some parts of Latin America where you see a kind of terrorism that is as bad, as brutal, as you see in ISIS. Mass beheadings, mass hangings, just the most gruesome kind of violence.
DESJARDINSAnd just south of the U.S. border.
PRIESTRight across from Texas and Arizona. And then, I would just add one little -- even though most people don't look at this, when they look at press freedom trends, I would also include now the U.S. in this, where we have seen the dying off of community newspapers, of reporting on state legislatures and then at the national level, I don't know what to call it, the click-bait generation of news where, you know, they're still trying to get your eyeballs on stories, rather than, you know, do the old fashioned kind of stories that we used to do.
PRIESTSo for all of those reasons, we really have this trend of newspapers going under, of violence, either state violence or criminal violence against journalists.
DESJARDINSAnd for our listeners, I want to strongly recommend the series that you helped write last year in The Washington Post, Dana, About reporting around the world and really the problems constraining what the public is knowing about their own societies. I'm wondering, for our listeners, we want to get you involved in this conversation. What do you think about how journalism is going around the world and in this country? Do you think journalism is serving your needs?
DESJARDINSWhat do you think about constraints on journalism? Please give us a call, if you'd like to join us. That's 1-800-433-8850. Or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find us, of course, on Facebook or send us a tweet. As you can tell, we have a very highly regarded panel so we would love to include you in this conversation. Paul Farhi, you cover media for The Washington Post. We are going to talk about journalism in the United States with you in a little bit.
DESJARDINSBut I want to start off with, The Washington Post has a depth of experience that perhaps it wishes it didn't have with journalists overseas who are struggling, who are in difficult situations and including Jason Rezaian, who we mentioned at the beginning of this show. Can you remind us of his story?
FARHIYes. Jason was our bureau chief in Tehran covering the Iranian regime and taking the dangers and the risks of doing so. He was arrested. He was held and charged without any specific allegations against him. He was finally released after 18 months in January with the help of the U.S. government. And it was a vigil, if you will, at The Washington Post, waiting all those months, not hearing about his fate. His family, his wife, literally, held vigil outside the prison in Tehran and it was a great moment for him and for us when he was released, finally.
DESJARDINSThe Post, to this date, does not know specifically why he was arrested, but it is assumed it was absolutely because he was a journalist working to cover the regime there. I heard him speak many times before he was arrested, many of our listeners may remember he was even in Anthony Bourdain's series around the world. He was very careful in what he said. He didn't seem to be overly critical of the regime. But what do you make of exactly what motivated that arrest, as an example?
FARHIWell, it's very complicated. Jason is a dual citizen of the United States and Iran. He was apparently, and we don't really know, caught up in the internal factions of the Iranian government. There was a hardline faction that wanted to resist the West and wanted to make a statement by arresting, effectively, a Western journalist, a prominent journalist like Jason. And then, there was a moderate regime within the Iranian government that wanted to release him.
FARHIAnd so Jason was caught between the two poles of the government there. But we really don't know. So much is a blank box for us and that was what made this situation so perilous because it was impossible to get information and all of the standards of justice that we take for granted here in America were not in play in Iran.
DESJARDINSDelphine, not only do journalists around the world have to deal with threats, serious threats, but in many places, including the United States, they also have to deal with sort of decreasing popularity, a lack of trust somewhat in the media. Can you explain why you pursue this cause so much? I can hear some of our listeners wondering, well, there are thousands of refugees who are dying, there are so many people at risk in the world. Why journalists? Why is Reporters Without Borders doing this work?
HALGANDI like to say that at Reporters Without Borders, we don't defend journalists because they are exceptional people. They are not. And I'm saying that because I'm a journalist.
DESJARDINSWe are all nodding. Yes.
HALGANDBut because freedom of the press, freedom of information is the freedom that all of us to verify the existence of all the other freedoms. And that's why it's such an important freedom and that's why it's such a fundamental freedom in even the U.S. Constitution. And that's, I think, we should all care about journalists who are killed, targeted, in prison or kidnapped because it's all freedom which is killed or kidnapped.
DESJARDINSI imagine your work is not easy. I imagine even just getting information, trying to sort out what's happening and when is not easy. Can you tell us about what you do and how you're able to protect journalists?
HALGANDSo at Reporters Without Borders, one of our strengths is to rely on a network of local journalists who work for us in 140 countries. There are local journalists paid to report every day on press freedom violation, if a journalist is killed in Somalia, if a blogger is detained in Vietnam, if there's a new dangerous law in Poland. We will report on it and then advocate for the release of a journalist, for a reform of a dangerous law and we will assist this journalist on the ground.
HALGANDAnd the assistance can go from providing health care insurance for Western freelancer going to war zone, to provide computers to Vietnamese bloggers, to broadcast towards Eritrea, which is a completely closed country, as you know, so we support an independent radio towards Eritrea. The list is very long. There is many ways to help journalists.
PRIESTI think that Delphine is underselling her organization and other advocates because, really, I find that one of the most important jobs they play is to push the administration here and elsewhere, but let me talk about here. The government here has a sort of split personality on the issue of press freedom. On the one hand, you know, they will stand up and say, this is very important to us. On the other hand, if -- on the other hand, time and time again, those values get trumped all the time by what they narrowly define as national security, strategic interests.
PRIESTSo in a country like Egypt, for example, or Azerbaijan, you know, where there are strategic, traditional military alliances, the countries will say now to the U.S., well, we don't, you know, forget it. We're not gonna pay attention to you on press freedom. This is our country. And they will even say, we will take your military dollars, but we will no longer take your press freedom dollars to aid independent...
DESJARDINSAnd you're saying the U.S. allows that to happen.
PRIESTThe U.S., pretty much, rolls over, except that these organizations, Reporters Without Borders, Committee To Protect Journalists and others, they stand there and they negotiate with the government. They are always there in their face saying, but look, you have to look more broadly at this and they will stand up and embarrass the government into doing something if they don't do it. So if they weren't here, I think the U.S. government would not be doing as much -- and they're not doing enough, but doing as much as they are.
HALGANDAnd if I can just add...
DESJARDINSYes, Delphine Halgand.
HALGANDIf I can just add something. Actually, I spend most of my time pushing the U.S. government to do a better job for the American journalist themselves.
DESJARDINSAnd Dana Priest, I want to mention, you're a Pulitzer Prizewinner of two different -- a series of stories which investigated what the U.S. government is doing both in this country and outside of this country. So a very good voice. Listeners, please send us your questions. Call us at 1-800-433-8850. We're gonna take a short break, but we'll be right back.
DESJARDINSAnd welcome back. I'm Lisa Desjardins with the PBS News Hour sitting in for Diane Rehm. This hour, an important conversation about how you get your information about the world and the challenges that journalists face, sometimes life-threatening challenges, around the world. We want to take a call right now from Idrees Ali. He is a writer for Reuters. But, importantly, he's been part of this series with The Washington Post, looking at journalism around the world and those who are threatened. And we want to use this as a time to just look at one specific story, bring you into one person's life who is facing very severe difficulties in trying to do their job. Idrees, can you tell us about Hamid Mir in Pakistan?
MR. IDREES ALISure. So Hamid Mir is a 49-year-old journalist in Pakistan and he's sort of the most well known TV reporter that the country has. And he, starting from when he was 21, has sort of been pushing the boundaries of what is sort of acceptable to report on in Pakistan and what isn't. And it -- obviously, Pakistan, a very important country because it's received billions of dollars in U.S. money, especially after September 11. So when we started the series, we wanted to do U.S.-allied countries and sort of the important one is Pakistan.
ALISo in the post-2001 era, the -- it sort of, you know, it was an interesting phenomenon where the media did open up in terms of the number of radio stations, newspapers and TV channels. But there were always these sort of redlines. And one of those redlines was reporting on the Pakistani military, which is, of course, sort of the most important institution in the country. It eats up a large part of the budget. But it sort of doesn't accept any oversight or accountability.
DESJARDINSAnd including the Pakistani Intelligence Service in particular.
ALIRight. So what Hamid Mir was sort of pushing at was the Inter-Services Intelligence, which is the ISI, also known as, you know, their spy agency, which really doesn't accept any sort of criticism. So Hamid Mir started pushing the boundary and started reporting on the ISI, sort of, its support for the Afghan Taliban taking money from the U.S. on the one side...
ALI...and then, you know, supporting militancy in Afghanistan on the other side. So he started reporting on these things and that got him into a lot of trouble.
DESJARDINSBut tell us a little bit -- I know he survived a bomb attack. At one point, he was shot at.
DESJARDINSI believe he was hit by six bullets, has three bullets lodged in his body.
DESJARDINSYou know, this is a situation where I think some might reconsider their profession, to put it bluntly. But tell us what his day-to-day life is. He continues to report. He continues to go on air. And how does he try to remain alive, frankly?
ALISure. So I mean, he actually -- the first attempt on his life was in 2012, when the Pakistani Taliban placed a bomb under his car. It never went off, luckily for him. But that's when it sort of started the issues. And then in 2014, when he was in Karachi and traveling to his office, four gunmen attacked. He was struck with six bullets, in intensive care, and made it through. So what Dana and I really did when I went to Pakistan was see a day in his life. And it really is pretty remarkable to see what he has to go through. So he uses, for example, two cell phones at all times, doesn't pick up calls that -- if the number he doesn't recognize, he doesn't pick those calls up. He travels in an armored vehicle, which is very expensive...
ALI...especially for a journalist, you know...
ALI...not making much money, very expensive. And whenever he travels, he takes a different route. And there is always a follow car with two armed guards following him everywhere he goes. So that's really affected the way he has to do journalism because he can't meet sources. He assumes his cell phones are being tapped, so he can't really talk on them. So it's really affected the way he does journalism. And a lot of his journalism is by talking with other journalists and sort of trying to find out stories. So that's...
DESJARDINSAnd, Idrees Ali, that is just one example of one journalist that Americans probably don't hear about very often.
DESJARDINSBut I want to ask you, as one final question, how is the news received in Pakistan? Do Pakistanis, in general, seem to get fair and independent media in their world? There is -- obviously live in a very complicated society. What is journalism like and the freedom of the press like in Pakistan?
ALISo the freedom -- the press is very vibrant in Pakistan, especially if you're talking about politics or, you know, any other issue. But when it comes to the military, there's really not much coverage. So everything other than the military, you will hear varying viewpoints, sort of, you know, different...
ALI...different viewpoints on everything. But when it comes to the military, the reporting is limited. And as Hamid Mir sort of pushed to it, you know, there were attacks on his life. So it's -- other than the military, it seems to be vibrant. But...
ALI...you know, when you come to the military, it becomes very tough.
DESJARDINSIn a way, reporting on the most, perhaps, important institution in that country, it comes with a very high risk.
DESJARDINSIdrees Ali, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for your work.
PRIESTLisa, can I brag just a minute?
DESJARDINSPlease. Dana Priest of The Washington Post. Please.
PRIESTBecause Idrees was one of my students at the University of Maryland. And I have a class there where I teach a class, giving each student an imprisoned journalist to do a profile on. And the response from the students has been amazing. I mean, they just didn't know, as young journalists, that people sacrifice as much as they do. And they developed this program called Press Uncuffed. I'm going to just talk about this for two seconds.
PRIESTWhich is, you know, we sell these bracelets with the names of imprisoned journalists on them and we give the money to the Committee to Protect Journalists. And I've just been -- and they've started, you know, this organization has grown and we're not reaching out to other universities. But the point is that inspiring young journalists is not hard. I mean, they know, despite the, you know, digital fanaticism everywhere, you know, they can sense what the bottom line of important journalistic work is. And he is, by far, the, you know, great example of that. So I'm really proud of him.
DESJARDINSWell congratulations to student and teacher on that. Listeners, join us for this conversation. Our phone number, 1-800-433-8850. Or you can email us at email@example.com, find us on Facebook or, of course, you can also send us a tweet. I'm curious, listeners, if you feel that you get all of the news that you want, if you feel like journalism is too hampered, or how you think it is working these days.
DESJARDINSI want to come back, Delphine Halgand, to this idea of the threats to journalists in the world. Dana mentioned earlier in the program a number of countries, a lot of governments which are familiar with this, tyrannical governments which use their powers to hamper a free press or to completely block one. But it seems now, in reading through your reports, we have a new threat to journalism, which is non-governmental organizations that could be cartels or in sometimes perhaps it's entire belief systems, such as Islamic fundamentalism, where we saw just last year nine of the reporter deaths were journalists at Charlie Hebdo.
DESJARDINSCan you talk about perhaps that shift, journalism's being -- journalists being threatened not just by a government -- by something perhaps less tangible?
HALGANDYeah, no. Exactly. What we have observed is that in the recent years we see that more and more journalists are targeted, and not only by states, by non-state groups, religious groups, terrorist groups. And by targeted, I mean killed, but also kidnapped.
HALGANDWe have seen a really concerning raise in the number of kidnappings these last years, of course, in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq, in Libya, but also in Ukraine during the conflict last year. And what I want to highlight because it's really important to understand that, 80 percent of the journalists kidnapped are locals.
HALGANDThey are not the American or the European going there...
HALGAND...so which really highlight that ransom is not the whole answer or the whole reason. It's really because these groups, al-Qaida, al-Nusra, the Houthis in Yemen, or of course ISIS, they want to silence the local voices, first of all. And on this I actually want to highlight that I don't know if the American people is aware, but there are still an American journalist missing in Syria.
DESJARDINSWe're talking about Austin Tice.
DESJARDINSCan you tell us his story? He's a former Marine. He was working for CBS, McClatchy and others, when he disappeared in Syria. And his fate is unknown at this time. Can you talk about that?
HALGANDSo Austin Tice disappeared in the suburbs of Damascus in August 2012, while he was reporting mostly for McClatchy, The Washington Post, as you said. And his fate is unknown. We know that he's not detained by ISIS or al-Nusra. And the Syrian government assured his parents that they will help them...
HALGAND...to secure his safe return. And I spent a lot of hours, days, months, these last years, to also encourage the U.S. administration to do everything they can to bring him back home. And John Kerry, last week, publicly confirmed again that he will do everything he can to bring Austin back home. Barack Obama, during the last Correspondent Dinner, repeated again that until he's in this office, he will do everything he can to bring American journalists back home. And he was, of course, talking about Austin Tice.
DESJARDINSBut the years keep rolling on, time keeps going on.
HALGANDYes. But we have the really high insurance that he's alive and that we can bring him back home.
DESJARDINSPaul Farhi, you cover media for The Washington Post. When we talk about journalism -- and we will get to this, we usually talk about journalism in the United States -- is there enough of a conversation in this country, a realization of the problems of getting information in the rest of the world?
FARHIThere isn't because we are so focused on our own concerns. It certainly pops up when we hear about Austin Tice or Jason Rezaian or Steven Sotloff, who was executed by ISIS, as was James Foley. We periodically hear about those things. But it's distance and -- it's distant and it's far away. There is not enough of a conversation. And the work that Dana and Delphine do is very, very important.
PRIESTYou know one of the oddities of this era is that, in an age of the Internet, when we personally feel deluged with too much information, there's actually a lack or a decline in what I would call civic information all over the world, including in the United States. So it's a paradox of this age. And we really can't be, you know, we have to look below the surface of this flood of data that you get every day, to say, what is -- what am I getting about my life? Main -- you know, here in the United States, what are we getting about what our government is doing? But certainly overseas as well.
DESJARDINSAnd what information are we getting that we use to make our decisions like, for example, who we want to be our next president. (word?) very interesting to see what are voters basing their decisions on. That's a major question in this campaign, how that has shifted or not. Yes, Paul Farhi.
FARHII just wanted to put in one word more about Austin Tice. Austin Tice is a movie waiting to be made.
FARHIThis was a young man who, as Delphine said, served in Afghanistan as a Marine, decided he wanted to become a journalist and became a journalist in the most courageous and brave way. He decided to sneak into, which is, what he really had to do is sneak into Syria to cover a story that no Western journalists or very few Western journalists have been able to see. He made it all the way to Damascus under the most perilous circumstances and then one day simply disappeared.
FARHIAnd we believe he's still alive. But he is a brave and courageous young man who should be celebrated in this country.
PRIESTAnd we also believe he was -- he's being held by the Syrian government.
DESJARDINSRight. As Delphine was implying, that's right.
DESJARDINSAnd it should be said that he is also a Peabody Award winner for his work in Syria, which was ahead, as you say, of many journalists. And this -- I want to say, this is Lisa Desjardin. We're with "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, again, give us a call, 1-800-433-8850. Or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And I want to go to call -- to the phones right now and to Chris in Exeter, N.H. Chris, what's your question?
CHRISYeah. I just want to kind of add on to the point that you were starting to touch on there. I've seen, in my own opinion, that it seems that the lack of a lot of investigative and really expose-type reporting has kind of been suppressed by the corporate media itself and, you know, possibly for the benefit towards a certain plan, you know, from the government or just for the corporation's own self interest. And I think that, like to the best degree, the, like the current, you know, constant war state or even to a lesser degree, kind of like the rise of Donald Trump, that because of these -- this corporate interest, it's really keeping a lot of the information that the American people are lacking, you know, from actually getting out there.
CHRISAnd I just wanted to know what your panel's position was on those kind of thoughts.
DESJARDINSChris, thank you for that call. And also, too, that a lot of listeners have similar questions. We have an email from Alan. He says, please ask your guests how the politicization of news organizations has helped or hurt, since this is obvious in the U.S. So I want to go to you, Paul...
DESJARDINS...about the issue both of corporate media -- I know there is clearly a thought among Americans that journalism is controlled, that it is not necessarily on the ground. But then there is also a very real issue of ratings and being driven by ratings and profits. As Dana mentioned earlier, we have a problem losing small newspapers across the country, which were such an important driver of information. Can you talk about the politics of journalism right now? And then also, where the business of journalism -- how is that helping or hurting us?
FARHIWell, I will say, first of all, that no one knows what they're doing right now.
FARHIThere is a kind of panic in the news business...
FARHI...because we are all trying to figure out, even long after the invention of the Internet, how to deal with the Internet. And it has caused, to use the popular phrase, so much disruption in our business that we are still in a mode of, how do we do this? But I disagree with the whole notion that corporations are somehow controlling or suppressing the information that the public receives. This is a meme that Bernie Sanders has put out, that the corporate media did not cover him, which in fact is true. But I would also say that there is plenty of investigative reporting. I'm sitting next to a double-Pulitzer Prize winner for...
FARHI...for her great investigative reporting. I urge anyone to read the entries in the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. There is fantastic work being done.
FARHIIt's expensive and it's hard to do, but it's being done.
DESJARDINSPaul, I curious how you look at this election cycle. We've certainly seen plenty of reports of journalists being penned in. You know, and I'm sure there's not a lot of sympathy for that. That's part of our job. But talking more broadly, are you seeing a change in the way journalists are able to report in this country, the way politicians have power versus the media on the ground?
FARHII'm only seeing it with one candidate and that's Donald Trump. And Donald Trump has changed some of the ground rules for the way in which political reporters can report on him. And you mentioned the pens, that's just one example of what happens at a Trump rally. Trump rallies….
DESJARDINSAlthough, I'll say, you know, I've been -- I was penned in the last two election cycles by other candidates.
FARHISome of them do it.
FARHIBut for the most part, you're mostly free to wander around the crowd.
FARHIThat was just the start of it. Trump rallies are different in many, many different ways than the average rally for a politician. And reporters feel a bit under threat. Trump makes a point of, every rally, of mentioning the press is dishonest, the press is disingenuous. They're sitting over there in that pen over there. And everybody turns around and boos at them. Now, it has not come to any violence, but it might.
PRIESTHe's also advocated for the rollback of press freedom in this country. And so it's -- he's though about how to do that.
PRIESTAnd that's worrisome as well.
DESJARDINSWell, I think what's interesting too is, when you go to Donald Trump rallies, the voters all -- the voters who are there at those rallies feel the same way, which is -- I don't know where that takes us as a society, but it's something to pay very close attention to, I think, as well. We're going to take a short break. I'm Lisa Desjardins with the PBS News Hour sitting in for "The Diane Rehm Show." We'll be right back.
DESJARDINSAnd welcome back. I'm Lisa Desjardins with the PBS NewsHour, sitting in for Diane Rehm, talking about nothing less important than the information you get and how you get it, how journalists around the world are able to do their job, where they are and where they're not, and how they do. And I want to go straight to the calls. We've got a call from Sara from Kalamazoo, Michigan. Sara, what is your question?
SARAHi, thank you for taking my call.
DESJARDINSOh, my pleasure, thanks for calling.
SARAI am one of the many Americans right now that's discouraged with the media that we have available to us, and I have kind of a comment after listening to all these conversations, it's really that it's so discouraging when you look at what journalists are faced -- international journalists, whether they are a citizen of another nation or an American journalist that's traveling abroad to get the news out there, and then they have their lives on the line just to be able to tell the truth to the citizens. It's so discouraging to look at American media and see what was mentioned at the beginning with the click-bait and have, you know, headlines kind of slanted to a half-truth that may or may not actually be the information that you're even going to read in the article.
SARAAnd my question is really, where is that incentive to have a click-bait headline coming from? Is it a pressure from the powers that be, kind of the bosses? Or is it really just trying to appease to the lowest-common-denominator American that just wants this spoon-fed information that they don't really have to do invest much into?
DESJARDINSGreat question, Sara, thank you, and I also want to read this email from Ethan from Bloomington, Indiana, on the same theme. He mentions basically the same idea that Sara just did, and he asks, is there any other country where this occurs, or is it a purely American phenomenon. Let's talk about click-bait journalism. It's something we all feel -- I'm so blessed to work at the PBS NewsHour, where we really put a lot of thought into our show, but even we feel the pressure to try and go along. We try and resist as much as we can. But can you talk, Paul Farhi, about what click-bait journalism is doing right now? Is it as big a deal as we think, or is it not?
FARHIWell, you have to start off the idea that we're in the news business, and this is the business side of the news business. We need people to read our journalism, and we need to get them to do it in ways that are at least honest but might actually be lowering the standards of what we produce. So the way we think of it at the Washington Post is we will put out a lot of things that, in an earlier age when we had the luxury of not putting out those things, we need to do right now because we need to develop the traffic that supports the great investigative work, which is expensive.
FARHISo it's a bargain that we've made to be able to gain the traffic, gain the attention to support...
DESJARDINSBut it's such a difficult trade-off between public service. Even the airwaves used to be all about public service when they were originally given to the networks for free.
FARHIWell, let's not get too nostalgic. That's not really true.
DESJARDINSWell, well in theory at least.
DESJARDINSBut now that's not part of the conversation really.
FARHIRight, but again, let me stress that for all the click-bait, there's also great work being done. And don't, you know, miss the forest for the trees here.
DESJARDINSDana Priest of the Washington Post.
PRIESTI'd like -- you know, the bottom line on why they do click-bait is because newspapers and other media, they can't figure out how to make money. They can't replace the print advertisers. So they're trying, and it's not actually always working. They're just trying now to get more eyeballs on the page, as they say, thinking that that number will translate into digital ads. It's not happening, though, so even with click-bait they haven't found a formula to replace what happened when you bought a newspaper, and you paid money, and it was the only place that advertisers could get you to look.
PRIESTNow people want media for free, which was probably our big mistake is that we didn't start charging for digital media. So it's really a desperate attempt to stay alive so that, you know, they can do better reporting. But I have to say, I'm equally as distressed as the caller about the state of American journalism because yes, I do think that young journalists coming in today, they don't really know because they are so digitally oriented and not necessarily toward gumshoe, ordinary reporting, and they don't get those skills. And, you know, that's why I started teaching.
PRIESTBut the other point is that the good news, I think, in the investigative realm is not found in papers like the Washington Post because they still are doing what they did before but in the start-ups, the ProPublicas, the nonprofit models that have actually worked, the Marshall Project. People weren't sure if these were going to go anywhere, and they have been. They've gotten philanthropy support, they've gotten bigger staffs, and then you find new media like BuzzFeed, who is nothing but click-bait, right, but their -- their investigative staff now is larger than the New York Times investigative staff.
DESJARDINSThat's right. They are...
PRIESTAnd so they want legitimacy. So that pendulum is swinging back.
DESJARDINSThey're sort of ice cream and steak right now.
DESJARDINSI guess is what they're trying to be. It's a strange combination.
PRIESTSame with VICE News.
DESJARDINSRight, Delphine, I want to come back to this idea. We're talking a little bit, in a roundabout way, about what journalists choose to cover. And part of what you've been looking at, and Dana as well, is the idea of self-censorship and what's happening in the world right now. Can you talk about where journalists are under pressure to self-censor and why? I know Dana did a specific story about Mexico. But can you talk about that very real threat?
HALGANDYes, so self-censorship is definitely a consequence of journalist's threats and attacks. But also sometimes of the financial lack of independence. So actually in our annual reports at the War Press Freedom Index, where we rank countries according to their level of press freedom, self-censorship is one of the major criteria that we look at.
HALGANDAnd just to go back to one point, you may be in the U.S., we are worried about the control of the media, but I just want to say you should look at what's happening in France or in Poland or in Latin America, where there is real lack of financial independence. Just to give you an example, in France the major media are owned by, like, five businessmen who have no interest in the real mission of journalism. And we have seen documentaries on major French banks censored, journalists fired, like what -- things that we see now again in Poland or that we have seen in Turkey.
HALGANDSo really this issue of the financial independence is key to understand the quality and to defend the quality of journalism.
DESJARDINSIncredible. Delphine Halgand with Reporters without Borders. Dana Priest, I want to talk about Mexico and the drug wars. Two questions there. One, what is happening to those who attempt to report from within those central war zones, essentially, I'll call them, where the cartels are fighting? What's happening to the newspapers there? You feature one fascinating newspaper in your story. But then how about the U.S.? Are we self-censoring? Are we getting really accurate reports about what's happening in Mexico?
PRIESTWell to take your last question first, no, I don't think so. I don't think it's self-censorship in the classic sense. I think that we feel like this is a story that's old. But when I went there, and it's old in the sense that the problem of drug trafficking and its complete control of our neighbors to the south has only gotten worse over the decades, not better, despite the war on drugs. But in -- and so we don't hear about it. And when you look at the violence and the -- sort of why are people coming here still, it's no longer just the economic, you know, I want a better life. It, when you talk to the Border Patrol, it's really people are fleeing the same kind of violence they're fleeing in Syria, only they're not getting, you know, attacks from the air. They're mainly getting attacks from cartels.
PRIESTYou don't have a choice. You either join if they want you to, or you get killed. and...
DESJARDINSI'm so interested in your piece. You talk about how these cartels have their own media representatives. There are members of the cartel whose job it is to tell the local newspaper what will be in the newspaper. Can you tell the extent to which that happens? Is that a day-to-day agenda setting by cartels?
PRIESTIt is, it is, and I wanted to look at how does the censorship exactly work. And what I found was astonishing. The editor of a regional paper called El Menana, which is right across the border from Texas, let me come and talked to me in very detail about how it works. And there are these people who everyone knows who they are in newsroom, they're called the enlaces, which is the link, the link between the cartels and the newsroom. And their specific job is to tell the newspaper every day, given what's happened around in the city, what you can and cannot write about, and this mainly happens in the area of police or military activity.
PRIESTSo they'll meet the crime reporters out on the street, and they'll say to them, you know, get out of here, you're not -- don't say anything about this. Or they'll call up, and this is what I witnessed, they'll call up an editor and say we want you to run X. And then they don't have a choice. And this man was very open about that. And when they have tried to push the limit, when they have written little stories, without the names of the drug bosses, they have had people killed and kidnapped.
PRIESTSo in this little newsroom in the past decade, they've had four people murdered.
PRIESTAnd everybody is afraid. The police are so corrupt that the federal government closed down all the local police in that area, and it's the military that occupies that area. And they're out there with their -- you know, their tanks and their Humvees and their helicopters. So it's a military occupied place, and the military still is outgunned by the...
DESJARDINSThe cartel -- it's cartel operated, military run, cartel operated.
PRIESTBetween -- and what really matter is how a particular cartel thinks about the media. So in one town, he may have a more open view of what the media should be allowed to report on, and in another town, it's a total blackout, and he enforces the blackout, as is the case in a place called Nuevo -- Laredo, with a media boss who knows all the reporters, is texting the reporters all the time.
DESJARDINSIncredibly, incredible. Paul Farhi, there's two things that your colleague Dana just touched on here that I want to talk to you about. One is the information I guess that the U.S. gets about the Mexican drug war and this idea that perhaps American journalists only cover things that they think are new, that perhaps haven't been going on forever, and perhaps they're solvable, too. Sometimes I think journalists these days might be looking too hard for what's the solution this, oh the Mexican drug problem, it's been going on forever, what's the point in covering that. How real of an issue do you think that is?
FARHIThat's always an issue. You know, the first three letters of news are new. We do look for the newest thing, the most sensational thing, not to distort it, but we do want to make a statement in each story, which says something has changed, and something is new. To talk simply about drug wars and drug cartels in Mexico is itself an old story. We need something -- I mean, any editor, any beginning journalism student will tell you you have to advance the story.
DESJARDINSAnd but yet here's the Washington Post, Dana Priest found a way to do that.
FARHIShe certainly did.
DESJARDINSTo look at what's really happening and things that we haven't seen before. we have an email question that I think should go to you, as well, Paul Farhi, our media reporter from the Washington Post. Jennifer Lee (PH) is writing, at the White House press dinner this past Saturday, President Obama said that he and his administration would continue to do all they could to free journalists held overseas. Jason Rezaian clapped, but his face looked as if he didn't think the U.S. could do it all. Why did the U.S. get him back and not others?
FARHIWell that's a great question because we saw this, that the U.S. will always put its own interests ahead of a journalist being freed. For instance in Jason's case, there was a lot of criticism of the administration of why they didn't tie the discussions about Iran ending its nuclear program with the release of Jason. And President Obama said explicitly that's going down a separate track, we will not tie those two things together.
DESJARDINSOkay, and I'm Lisa Desjardins with the PBS NewsHour. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. And we're going to take some more of your calls, as well. We're going to go to Samia in Washington, D.C. Samia, what's your question or comment?
SAMIAHi, I'm calling because I've recently been quite disenchanted with U.S. media forces. So I actually for a long time was relying on Al Jazeera America. I heard about Flint, Michigan, from them months before any other American news source was talking about that and also just sort of (unintelligible) you just talked about the New York Times. If the New York Times is considered in some ways one of the best news sources in the country, and they've explicitly endorsed one candidate, then what does one do about trying to find balanced coverage of different candidates and what's happening in the country today?
DESJARDINSThank you for your call. Dana Priest?
PRIESTFlint, Michigan, is a great example of the ramifications of not having local news. There was no one there to cover it. And at the local level, the corporate question is very relevant because these papers are being bought up by equity funds that turn them over quickly that destroy the news. So in that regard she's right, you know, and the reason is that there's no local news there.
DESJARDINSDelphine, with Reporters Without Borders, I'm curious, in the rest of the world, do we see newspapers especially or television programs, which are more outwardly biased, which promote a candidate? She's talking about, you know, of course here editorial pages will promote a candidate, and usually, I think almost 100 percent of the time, reporters are held separate from that. But is that something that's common in the rest of the world?
HALGANDI have to say, each country has really its own specific culture and it's -- you cannot find the exact same habits in any other country than the U.S. Just to say, for example, in Europe it's pretty rare that a newspaper will officially endorse a candidate.
HALGANDBut you will know that this newspaper is more left, or this other newspaper is more right. But it's -- in Europe I don't see that so...
DESJARDINSInteresting, Paul Farhi?
FARHIThe caller mentioned Al Jazeera America, which now no longer exists. It's out of business. This goes back to the dictates of the news business. They did not get ratings. They are -- did not get advertising as a result. There was no economic sustenance for them. Their patron in Qatar is hurting from the fall of oil revenues. So in other words, maybe Al Jazeera should have figure out a different formula, maybe even more click-bait. They were very serious, very, very strong news organization, but maybe some click-bait would've helped.
DESJARDINSDana Priest, you used a phrase news deserts. Can you talk about that?
PRIESTWell actually I'm with the help of other people trying to map the news deserts in the United States right now. And that would be places, mainly local, mainly rural, probably where people no longer can get the local news. I would even look at a place like Washington, D.C., the larger Washington, D.C. The Montgomery County Gazette went out of business, and no one bought them. So in Montgomery County now, you have less news. We're -- in Fauquier County, which is just 50 miles from here, you have a decimated local newspaper. You can't -- you're not in touch with your local community if you read that paper.
PRIESTSo there are places throughout especially the South and the Midwest where local papers have died out because they haven't adapted. Largely they're -- you know, a lot of them are family owned, and they're older people, and they just don't get the digital thing yet. And there are models out there that are trying to help, but because of it, there are news deserts that are vast.
DESJARDINSAnd quickly as we're wrapping up the show, I want to check with each of you. What would it take to change things? Are you optimistic or pessimistic, briefly, about the future for journalists. Delphine?
HALGANDI always have to stay optimistic, and I want to say that we always see improvements, like recently in Tunisia. What's happened in Tunisia is amazing, especially if you compare with what's happening in Egypt or Libya. So yes, there's always hope. There's always strong will from the citizens to get access to the truth and to get access to information.
FARHII'm neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I'm just confused.
DESJARDINSLike many probably, yes. Dana?
PRIESTAnd I'm still not -- I'm seeing some good news, like the new search for legitimacy in new media. But the smaller papers haven't figured out yet how to move into this century, and they really -- they can. The knowledge is out there. They just need to meet it.
DESJARDINSDana Priest with The Washington Post, Paul Farhi also with The Washington Post and Delphine Halgand with Reporters without Borders. Thank you for joining us. And thank you, listeners, for joining us. I'm Lisa Desjardins. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."
Most Recent Shows
Trump impeachment witness Fiona Hill on what her own background says about this political moment, and why she thinks the greatest threat to American democracy now comes from within.
Cities and states across the country are exploring reparations programs for Black Americans, but not all reparations advocates think it's the right approach. Diane talks to Mayor Daniel Biss of Evanston, Ill., and William Darity, Jr., and Kirsten Mullen, the co-authors of the book, "From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century”
The New Yorker's Evan Osnos traces the roots of divisions in the U.S. from 9/11 to January 6. His new book is "Wildland: The Making of America's Fury."