“A Thousand Cuts” is the name of a PBS documentary in which renowned Philippine journalist Maria Ressa argues that, without journalism, democracy experiences “death by a thousand cuts.” She is referring specifically, of course, to democracy in the Philippines where her public criticisms of President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal drug wars have garnered much attention. I believe the more poignant and alarming story, though, is the death of journalism itself.
I came to that conclusion while reading a recent interview Ressa gave Time Magazine after winning the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize on the cusp of the 10th anniversary of Rappler, the online publication she founded in 2012. “… this shows me exactly how much the world of news has changed since the time we created Rappler,” she said, “which was about building communities of action.”
Wait, when did mainstream journalism become synonymous with social action? And that’s when I realized that this is precisely the change she is championing.
Activist journalism isn’t new, of course. Back in the early 1970s, I began my career at a Northern California weekly called the Berkeley BARB, a notorious player in what was then referred to as America’s leftist “underground press.” We made no bones about where we stood; against the Vietnam War, against imperialism, against capitalism, against then-U.S.-President Richard Nixon, and against pretty much everything for which we believed America stood.
We had little use in those days for so-called “objective” reporting, balance, fairness or giving space to both sides. That’s because we believed there was only one side–ours–and the mission was to keep spreading it until it encompassed the world. We certainly didn’t expect the President and his minions to thank us; we knew they would attack, and they did.
A decade later, in another era, I graduated to the Los Angeles Times, which, back then anyway, held itself to a very different standard. Whatever personal views a reporter had, the editors insisted, should be strictly kept out of coverage. Failure to do so, everyone knew, constituted grounds for firing. And so we endeavored to practice what I now regard as the true art of journalism.
Today, alas, the pendulum has swung backwards.
“American view-from-nowhere ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment,” a 30-year-old reporter tweeted last year after being pressured to leave the Washington Post by an editor who has since retired. “We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.”
About the same time, respected opinion columnist Bari Weiss voluntarily departed the New York Times charging that “a new consensus has emerged in the press… that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else…”
Is it any wonder the Nobel Peace Prize has now jumped on that bandwagon? Ressa’s supporters would doubtless argue that there’s a line beyond which all moral ambiguity ceases and that Duterte’s lethal drug wars crossed it long ago. Yet the President’s approval ratings remain impressively high. And many of my friends and neighbors in Mindanao say they feel safer and freer now that drug trafficking is on the wane. If there were some unintended casualties, they say, well, that’s what happens when you’re engaged in a war.
Leaving all that aside, however, let’s look at specifics. Ressa—along with Dmitry Muratov of Russia—received the coveted prize, according to those who bestowed it, “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”
Muratov is editor and cofounder of a publication widely regarded as one of the “only truly critical newspapers… in Russia.” In his time as editor, critics have murdered six of its journalists.
Ressa, on the other hand, plies her craft in a country blessed with a vibrant press, much of it openly critical of Duterte. And while prosecutors have subjected her to several undoubtedly annoying legal proceedings, only one has stuck so far.
It’s a libel conviction stemming from the complaint of a prominent businessman that Rappler falsely tied him to human trafficking, drug smuggling and yes, even murder. The prosecution’s case was voluminous, detailed, and, frankly, unshakable. Ressa’s defense was thin, steeped in platitudes and largely based on technicalities regarding dates.
After poring exhaustively over the trial transcript, I reluctantly concluded that the court had not erred. “The best—and often only—defense against libel is truth,” I wrote in a column regarding the verdict last June. “In my humble opinion, Rappler failed on all counts.”
I guess these days that wins you a Nobel Prize.
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David Haldane’s latest book is a short-story collection called “Jenny on the Street.” A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning author, journalist and broadcaster currently dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.