Dictator Donald Trump (DDT) has accelerated his authoritarian regime by targeting CNN as the first news network for retribution. According to the White House, it will no longer allow its people to appear on that network and stated that it is “sending surrogates to places where we think it makes sense to promote our agenda.” To the current administration, the purpose of news is to “promote” its “agenda.”
Reuters is clarifying to its reporters how its news agency will cover “President Trump.” Reuters Editor-in-Chief Steve Adler wrote the following directive:
The first 12 days of the Trump presidency (yes, that’s all it’s been!) have been memorable for all – and especially challenging for us in the news business. It’s not every day that a U.S. president calls journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth” or that his chief strategist dubs the media “the opposition party.” It’s hardly surprising that the air is thick with questions and theories about how to cover the new Administration.
So what is the Reuters answer? To oppose the administration? To appease it? To boycott its briefings? To use our platform to rally support for the media? All these ideas are out there, and they may be right for some news operations, but they don’t make sense for Reuters. We already know what to do because we do it every day, and we do it all over the world.
To state the obvious, Reuters is a global news organization that reports independently and fairly in more than 100 countries, including many in which the media is unwelcome and frequently under attack. I am perpetually proud of our work in places such as Turkey, the Philippines, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Thailand, China, Zimbabwe, and Russia, nations in which we sometimes encounter some combination of censorship, legal prosecution, visa denials, and even physical threats to our journalists. We respond to all of these by doing our best to protect our journalists, by recommitting ourselves to reporting fairly and honestly, by doggedly gathering hard-to-get information – and by remaining impartial. We write very rarely about ourselves and our troubles and very often about the issues that will make a difference in the businesses and lives of our readers and viewers.
We don’t know yet how sharp the Trump administration’s attacks will be over time or to what extent those attacks will be accompanied by legal restrictions on our news-gathering. But we do know that we must follow the same rules that govern our work anywhere, namely:
- Cover what matters in people’s lives and provide them the facts they need to make better decisions.
- Become ever-more resourceful: If one door to information closes, open another one.
- Give up on hand-outs and worry less about official access. They were never all that valuable anyway. Our coverage of Iran has been outstanding, and we have virtually no official access. What we have are sources.
- Get out into the country and learn more about how people live, what they think, what helps and hurts them, and how the government and its actions appear to them, not to us.
- Keep the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles close at hand, remembering that “the integrity, independence and freedom from bias of Reuters shall at all times be fully preserved.”
- Never be intimidated, but:
- Don’t pick unnecessary fights or make the story about us. We may care about the inside baseball but the public generally doesn’t and might not be on our side even if it did.
- Don’t vent publicly about what might be understandable day-to-day frustration. In countless other countries, we keep our own counsel so we can do our reporting without being suspected of personal animus. We need to do that in the U.S., too.
- Don’t take too dark a view of the reporting environment: It’s an opportunity for us to practice the skills we’ve learned in much tougher places around the world and to lead by example – and therefore to provide the freshest, most useful, and most illuminating information and insight of any news organization anywhere.
This is our mission, in the U.S. and everywhere. We make a difference in the world because we practice professional journalism that is both intrepid and unbiased. When we make mistakes, which we do, we correct them quickly and fully. When we don’t know something, we say so. When we hear rumors, we track them down and report them only when we are confident that they are factual. We value speed but not haste: When something needs more checking, we take the time to check it. We try to avoid “permanent exclusives” – first but wrong. We operate with calm integrity not just because it’s in our rulebook but because – over 165 years – it has enabled us to do the best work and the most good.
Adler has good reason for the letter because of threats from current White House administration:
Censorship: Senior White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon has told the New York Times that the media should “keep its mouth shut.” DDT also frequently said that he plans to weaken libel protections for journalists to suppress coverage of himself and his officials.
Legal prosecution: DDT called for a congressional investigation into the leak of fairly unimportant information from a classified intelligence briefing, threatening prosecution for disclosures to the press. Since then, leaks have become a common pattern for DDT. In one of his lawsuits, DDT sued for author/journalist Timothy O’Brien for describing him as a millionaire, not a billionaire, in his book.
Visa denials: Emmy-nominated CNN producer and legal U.S. resident, Mohammed Tawfeeq, was detained at the airport at the beginning of DDT’s Muslim ban. As the current manager of CNN’s International Desk, Tawfeeq frequently travels to the Middle East. He is suing the U.S. departments of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection and other federal agencies for violating his rights under the Immigration and Nationality Act. In a memo Fox executives James and Lachlan Murdoch have addressed “a time of real uncertainty for many of our colleagues around the world.”
Physical threats: After a tense exchange with Trump during a January news conference, A year ago, a Secret Service agent choke-slammed a Time magazine photographer who tried to take pictures of protesters outside the designated press area during a DDT rally. A few weeks later, DDT’s campaign manager grabbed journalist Michelle Fields’ arm because she tried to ask a question when DDT was leaving a rally. DDT’s supporters threatened reporters with physical violence if they write critical information about him. Recently, Press Secretary CNN senior White House threatened to throw Jim Acosta out of a press conference if he continued to ask questions.
Adler’s comparisons to authoritarian regimes are easy to understand. According to an annual report released by the Britain-based Economist Intelligence Unit, the United States has been downgraded from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy” in the 2016 Democracy Index—and that was before the last two weeks. The U.S. is now 21st in international rankings based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties.
We need all reporters to follow Reuters Rules.