In the fall of 2018, I was a little younger and a lot less politically aware. I was 17, discouraged by my youth and the rural red weight of western Nebraska. Still, I tried my best, learning what I could from newspapers on Twitter. The Washington Post was among those publications.
I didn’t know much about the world around me, international economic policies and the entangling web of ethics and morals in a globalized society. Today, there’s plenty I still don’t know.
But 17-year-old Emma knew something was wrong when she opened her feed to this jarring headline: “This Should Be A Column By Jamal Khashoggi.”
On Oct. 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi walked into Istanbul’s Saudi consulate, where he hoped to retrieve documents allowing him to marry his fiancee. Instead, Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered. After months of indecision and finger-pointing, a UN investigation revealed the harrowing truth — the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was responsible.
Still, the investigation’s fallout held a delayed betrayal for American journalists. Despite urging from Congress, the Trump administration responded to the Khashoggi controversy with disturbing support of the Saudi government. President Trump’s response was littered with neglect for the free press, something that continues to be consequential for today’s journalists.
Two years after the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump administration fosters a rhetoric against the media that poses real harm.
We find this rhetoric first in the president’s statement. Released on Nov. 20, 2018, “Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Standing with Saudi Arabia“ is a lot to unpack. It falsely proposes that the Saudi Crown Prince’s role in the murder is uncertain, despite a CIA investigation claiming otherwise.
It deviates into the fighting in Yemen, which is responsible for a sickening ongoing humanitarian crisis. It barely mentions Khashoggi himself, and when it does, mentions him as “an enemy of the state.” But perhaps the statement’s most profound effect for modern journalists is featured in the first and final sentences: “America first!”
This was not a new statement for President Trump, yet it feels so deliberate and out of place within the statement of Khashoggi’s murder. That is because this statement is meant to distance its audience from Khashoggi, an attempt to bring us together under the banners of Our Safe American World and Their Dangerous Other World.
But how can we prioritize America without prioritizing its role as a beacon of liberty and justice? How can we put America first without recognizing the values we so treasure — the freedom of speech, the process of justice?
In this statement, we see the origin of a massive issue facing today’s American journalists. President Trump’s rhetoric toward the media is pro-America, not pro-American. It is certainly patriotic, upholding the idea of American pride and nationalism. But President Trump’s statement does not express American values. Our country cannot be the pinnacle of democracy if we lack the courage to condemn those who actively disregard it.
The president’s refusal to adequately criticize Saudi Arabia for the death of Jamal Khashoggi is one battle in a war against the media that continues to rage today. The dreaded “fake news” branded into the minds of nearly every American, a significant part of President Trump’s brand, revolves around disputes with the media.
Constantly in conflict with media companies and the amendment that protects their rights, the president even earned a verbal censure from Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, who asked the president if he would be willing recant his presidential oath after “yet again” attacking the First Amendment.
The truth is, President Trump has no qualms about attacking the free press when it reports against him, even calling out Fox News reporters who make statements he dislikes. This idea itself is not inherently wrong, as the president has a right to defend himself against the media.
The problem is that he doesn’t defend himself against the media — he discredits the facts of their institutions, which are foundational for educated and democratic conversations. Disputing an opinion is healthy for American democracy. Diversity of thought is welcome.
But discrediting an organization because they report contradictory viewpoints or admonishing their factual information because it looks bad are unacceptable actions. Referring to American media as the “true enemy of the people” is dangerous. Telling supporters that the harsh treatment of journalism at protests is “actually a beautiful sight” is dangerous. Suddenly, the divide between Our Safe American World and Their Dangerous Other World seems to blur.
Of course, the United States government doesn’t openly perform hits on unsavory journalists. According to major indexes of democracy, we are a flawed democracy, but a free democracy nonetheless. We rank far above the restricting nature of Saudi Arabia, so how could their actions be indicative of our own?
Saudi Arabia is indeed not America. We are not similar in our geography or government structure. But the United States has a duty to be a leader in this world, and leadership is not becoming to countries that perform the bare minimum. It is not enough for the US to be satisfied with its position as a first-world country.
Beginning with the disregard of Jamal Khashoggi, the United States has refused to step up as a voice for freedom of speech. The current administration has allowed a rhetoric to take root where the media — an industry full of perfectly intelligent and hardworking people — is villainized beyond necessity.
Journalists are valuable. Their contributions are valuable. Their lives and health are worth the weight of any human being.
On Oct. 4, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi should’ve published his column for the Washington Post. Instead, his words succumbed to a dreadful fate, the kind sought by injustice and feared by freedom. The kind journalists spend their lives to combat.
Emma Krab is a sophomore English and journalism major. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.