Journalism faces an ‘existential crisis’ in Trump era

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Amanpour's plea to protect journalism
01:28 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: CNN’s chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour has been awarded the Committee to Project Journalists’ Burton Benjamin Memorial Award for “extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom.” This is a transcript of the speech she gave after accepting the honor Tuesday night in New York.

Story highlights

CNN's Christiane Amanpour gave a speech on the challenges that journalists face in a Trump era

Journalism, she said, must not become "weaponized"

New York CNN  — 

I never in a million years thought I would be up here on stage appealing for the freedom and safety of American journalists at home.

Ladies and gentlemen, I added the bits from candidate Trump as a reminder of the peril we face. I actually hoped that once President-elect, all that that would change, and I still do. But I was chilled when the first tweet after the election was about “professional protesters incited by the media.”

He walked back the part about the protesters but not the part about the media.

We’re not there. But postcard from the world: This is how it goes with authoritarians like Sisi, Erdoğan, Putin, the Ayatollahs, Duterte, et al.

As all the international journalists we honor in this room tonight and every year know only too well: First the media is accused of inciting, then sympathizing, then associating – until they suddenly find themselves accused of being full-fledged terrorists and subversives. Then they end up in handcuffs, in cages, in kangaroo courts, in prison – and then who knows?

Just to say, Erdoğan has just told my Israeli colleague Ilana Dayan that he cannot understand why anyone’s protesting in America, it must mean they don’t accept – or understand – democracy! And he thinks America like all great countries needs a strongman to get things done!

Top journalists warn on press freedom

‘An appeal to protect journalism’

A great America requires a great and free and safe press. So this above all is an appeal to protect journalism itself.

Recommit to robust fact-based reporting without fear nor favor – on the issues. Don’t stand for being labeled crooked or lying or failing. Do stand up together – for divided we will all fall.

The historian Simon Schama, in the house tonight, told me early on that this was not just another election, and we cannot treat it as one.

And he says if ever there’s a time to celebrate, honor, protect and mobilize for press freedom and basic good journalism, it’s now.

At the start of this campaign, a network news president said this phenomenon may not be good for America but damn good for us.

During an interview on my program this summer, the filmmaker and historian Ken Burns asked me what would Edward R. Murrow do?

First, like many people watching where I was overseas, I admit I was shocked by the exceptionally high bar put before one candidate and the exceptionally low bar put before the other candidate.

It appeared much of the media got itself into knots trying to differentiate between balance, objectivity, neutrality, and crucially, truth.

We cannot continue the old paradigm – let’s say like over global warming – where 99.9% of the empirical scientific evidence is given equal play with the tiny minority of deniers.

I learned long ago, covering the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Bosnia, never to equate victim with aggressor, never to create a false moral or factual equivalence, because then you are an accomplice to the most unspeakable crimes and consequences.

‘Stop banalizing the truth’

I believe in being truthful, not neutral. And I believe we must stop banalizing the truth.

And we have to be prepared to fight especially hard for the truth in a world where the Oxford English Dictionary just announced its word of 2016: “post-truth.”

We have to accept that we’ve had our lunch handed to us by the very same social media that we’ve so slavishly been devoted to.

The winning candidate did a savvy end run around us and used it to go straight to the people. Combined with the most incredible development ever – the tsunami of fake news sites – aka lies – that somehow people could not, would not, recognize, fact check, or disregard.

One of the main writers of these false articles – these lies – says people are getting dumber, just passing fake reports around, without fact checking. We need to ask whether technology has finally outpaced our human ability to keep up. Facebook needs to step up. Advertisers need to boycott the lying sites.

Are journalists facing an ‘existential crisis?’

Wael Ghonim, one of the fathers of the Arab spring, dubbed the social media revolution, now says:

“The same medium that so effectively transmits a howling message of change also appears to undermine the ability to make it. Social media amplifies the human tendency to bind with one’s own kind. It tends to reduce complex social challenges to mobilizing slogans that reverberate in echo chambers of the like-minded rather than engage in persuasion, dialogue, and the reach for consensus. Hate speech and untruths appear alongside good intentions and truths.”

I feel that we face an existential crisis, a threat to the very relevance and usefulness of our profession.

Now, more than ever, we need to commit to real reporting across a real nation, a real world in which journalism and democracy are in mortal peril, including by foreign powers like Russia paying to churn out and place false news, and hacking into democratic systems here and allegedly in upcoming crucial German and French elections too.

A quick anecdote from out there: In the 1997 Iranian elections, the reform candidate won and the establishment ayatollahs were caught totally off guard. One of them asked me later how I was so sure and when did I know that Khatami was going to win. I told him, as soon as I got on the ground and started talking to people! Just saying.

Fighting against a ‘post-values world’

We must also fight against a post-values world.

And let me hit back at this elitist backlash we’re all bending over backwards to accommodate.

Since when were American values elitist values? They are not left or right values. They are not rich or poor values, not the forgotten-man values.

Like many foreigners I have learned they are universal. They are the values of every American from the humblest to the most exalted. They form the very fundamental foundation of the United States and are the basis of America’s global leadership. They are brand America. They are America’s greatest export and gift to the world.