Batya Ungar-Sargon, Opinion Editor, Newsweek | USA

Batya Ungar-Sargon is the Opinion Editor of Newsweek. She is the author of “Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy” and the forthcoming “Promised Land: The Working Class Struggle for the American Dream.” Formerly, she was the Opinion Editor of the Forward and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, the New York Review of Books Daily, and many other publications. Batya Ungar-Sargon has appeared numerous times on MSNBC, NBC, the Brian Lehrer Show, NPR, and at other media outlets. She holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.


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Event Title: SDGs Conference 2023 Date: Sept 20, 2023


State of Press Freedom under Autocratic Regimes: State`s control of media as a venue of propaganda

There are many autocratic regimes across the globe that you will hear about but they do not recognize freedom of the press or even the sanctity of human life, where speaking the truth can cost a journalist his or her freedom. I think a lot of us must have heard about Evan Gershkovich, an American Wall Street Journal Reporter who is imprisoned by Russia. These countries routinely inflict human and civil rights abuses against journalists and its unspeakable. 

12 journalists were reportedly killed last year for reporting on the war in Ukraine and Russia. 13 journalists were killed in Mexico in 2022. Nothing that I am about to underline should be seen as in any way making an equivalence between what happens in those countries and what happens in Western democracies. Human rights abuses against journalists, murder, culture of violence, and impunity are atrocities that cannot be compared to anything else. Unfortunately, many democratic regimes have begun to engage in a culture of oppression and incrimination, often ironically in the name of fighting misinformation and disinformation. I would like to be extremely clear this is in no way comparable to killing and jailing journalists or allowing cartels to get away with killing and torturing journalists. 

Yet, when a government engages in efforts to suppress the truth about those in power and is met by a willing journalistic cast that has decided to assist in this suppression in the name of fighting misinformation, one can end up with a similar effect when it comes to the electorate. In other words, if the point of a free press is a free electorate whose freedom is in part predicated upon some level of being informed, then the sad truth is that journalism can be stifled by journalists if they are unwilling to stand up to government overreach, even when that overreach does not come in the form of imprisonment or physical threats. What we have learned in the US of late is that social threats, social status, and class solidarity can have a similar chilling effect on free speech and a commitment to diversity of thought. 

Autocrats are very adept at suffocating free speech and a free press with state-sponsored violence. However, in democracies, class interests can also suppress free speech while perhaps not as evil, terrifying, or violent as physical violence, it can result in a similarly conformist and unfree civic society, one that should horrify people committed to a free press, especially, we Americans, with our First Amendment in the US State Agencies, have routinely intervened to spread or silence journalistic stories of late most famously. 

I will present one example of how this happened in the name of fighting misinformation. In the run-up to the 2020 Presidential Election, President Biden’s son, Hunter Biden left his laptop in a computer repair shop, we now know by his own admission that it was his laptop that contained compromising information. The laptop was full of images of Hunter where he could be seen in compromising positions, as well as emails that showed a vast enterprise of influence peddling with representatives of foreign governments. 

Some of them are adversaries that may have implicated Joe Biden, we do not know yet. Yet when this story first came out, it was vigorously ignored, voluntarily by the mainstream legacy press so much so that as a candidate, President Biden was never even asked to deny that this was his son’s laptop, which it turned out it was. Instead of robust coverage, the media ran cover for the Biden campaign, which also colluded with a former acting director of the CIA, again, this is all reported. This is his own admission that got 50 intelligence officials to spread the lie. We now know that the laptop was Russian disinformation. Twitter then locked the account of the newspaper that had published the story to keep that vital information from spreading. 

Emails have subsequently revealed how often the Biden administration reached out to social media companies like Twitter and Facebook successfully petitioning them to ban the accounts of established journalists for the sin of publishing stories unfavorable to the administration, the White House successfully petitioned Facebook to remove post discouraging people from getting the COVID vaccine or discussing what turned out to be the almost certain actual origin of COVID-19 and others were booted from Twitter at the White House behest. Autocrats also are very good at protecting the free speech of people who agree with them. The US government participated in this regime of censorship so aggressively that recently a Federal Appeals Court said that the Biden Administration had violated the First Amendment. 

Again, I want to make it very clear that none of this comes close to jailing or killing journalists, but again, we are not here to discuss the evils of murder but rather the evils of suppressing the freedom of the press and silencing speech against our constitution. It is all the more egregious when that speech turns out to be true and yet with silence because of political purposes. Of course, the test of free speech is always when it comes to speech you disagree with, every autocrat can protect the speech of people they agree with. The worst part is that the media in America has been completely complicit in all of this. 

None of this would’ve been possible if the media had simply stood up to what we all were after, the benign requests from a Democratic government or even no requests at all. As in the case of the Hunter Biden laptop story, in repressive regimes, the media is forced to report things that they know are lies but here the tragedy is that members of the media cast have come to believe whatever the administration wants them to and the reason for that is very simple, capture. The American media has become deeply captured by a socio-economic elite that is almost uniformly ultra-progressive and no longer believes that free speech is an absolute value and that political debate is the sacred bedrock of a democracy. Some 96% of American journalists who gave political donations gave them to the Democratic Party, even though they only got 25% of the electorates’ votes. 

96% of journalists speak from the same position as a quarter of Americans, the majority of them have graduate degrees. They make at least twice the median income, although most of them make much more, and vanishingly a few of them believe that those they disagree with deserve to make their case unimpeded to the American people. A lot of that is being done again and they use the terms misinformation and disinformation and push a political and economic agenda. American journalists routinely end up protecting the very people they’re meant to be holding to account while smearing and silencing the working class who tend to be more socially conservative. American journalists are now on the side of those in power. They go to the same elite universities as the tech billionaires and politicians they are supposed to cover and their children end up in the same elite schools and they end up in the same neighborhoods at the same time. 

97% of political donations that came out of Silicon Valley, surprisingly went to the Democratic Party. So, there are two ways to stop the truth from emerging in a free press. One is to kill journalists in jail and the other is to wait for them to become part of the same elites that benefit from the status quo and then they have a vested interest in protecting the lies of those in power to whom their own status is bound, making them reactionary; conservatives who will defend the Biden Administration or the Obama Administration before them. 

This panel is about the UN General Assembly’s Sustainable Development Goals, which are noble goals including reducing all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere. However, the American press would not report the skyrocketing levels of violent crime plaguing low-income Americans, especially black Americans, and here is the worst part about it. They did not need to be told by a democratic administration not to report on the crime wave, which is highly localized in democratic cities. They did not have to be threatened with prison to not report on it. It came naturally to them. 

It is how they protect their elite status with ideas like defunding the police, which proliferated in 2020 and 2021. If you are a working journalist who knew people whose lives had been destroyed by crime and dared to speak up against it, you were ostracized, humiliated, and shamed into silence by your fellow journalists. Stories about crime are rife with misinformation and racism. They declared at the federally funded NPR a sentiment that was echoed over and over by the Legacy media. Now, imagine being the victim of rape or carjacking or the family member of a person who was murdered and having to read that headline. 

I am sure everybody thinks education is a vital goal. Yet, thanks to the censorship of the Biden Administration, a compliant press, and complicit social media companies, the disastrous impact of learning loss due to school lockdowns on low-income children was hidden from view, as was how little children were in danger of negative outcomes from COVID-19. It will take a generation for black children to make up the impact of losing two years of school while rich white kids were back in school within six months. During these lockdowns, which got no pushback from the mainstream media, physical abuse of children skyrocketed and so did suicide attempts. What about Target 5.2, eliminating all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public in private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation? One fact you will not read about in the American media is the fact that one-third of all women crossing our southern border illegally admit to being raped. 

Imagine what the actual number is as a third of these women admit that they were raped on the way here, including children as young as eight years old. Under President Biden, the US is seeing more human trafficking and more sex trafficking than we have certainly in my lifetime, probably in our entire history. Why don’t you hear about it in the press class? Solidarity American journalists are in the class that consumes cheap illegal migrant labor, not the class who are competing for those jobs. The point I am trying to make is that there are many ways for a regime to control the media for purposes of propaganda and not all of them are violent. Not all of them occur under autocracies and even functioning democracies can have a dysfunctional press. 

All it takes is for the people tasked with holding power to account, to get a taste of power, to cultivate deep contempt for the citizens they’re meant to be informing. All it takes is for journalists to think it is their job to tell people how to think or what to value instead of supplying them with facts so they can make up their own minds, the way you do with somebody you respect. Autocrats have contempt for human life and human rights but nothing compares to the atrocity that represents and the atrocities it results in. However, if you have contempt for the values of your fellow man because they do not agree with you, you can end up robbing them of the truth too, and using journalism to spread misinformation in the name of defending the truth. I hope this goes without saying to me, but for an American, the government should never ever be involved in the business of fighting misinformation.

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