In a sign of our tumultuous times, Time magazine has named journalists who risked their lives taking on despots and dysfunctional politicians —“the Guardians” in the “War on Truth”—as its Person of the Year. It is telling that half of them were murdered. It’s the first time since the magazine launched the year-end feature, in 1927, that some of the honorees were no longer alive. Even more striking, the largest number were murdered in the United States, which now ranks as the fourth deadliest country in the world for journalists—tied with Mexico, where reporters have long been targeted.
Among those selected by Time, on four separate covers, are Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist murdered by a Saudi hit squad in Istanbul, and the staff of the Capital Gazette, the newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, where a gunman, who had harassed the Gazette’s journalists for years, opened fire on the newsroom, killing five. The others include Maria Ressa, a former CNN bureau chief in Manila who now heads Rappler, a news Web site that has tracked extrajudicial killings under Rodrigo Duterte, the President of the Philippines. (An estimated twelve thousand people have been murdered in Duterte’s war on drugs.) She now faces trumped-up charges that carry a prison sentence of up to ten years. The fourth cover goes to Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters journalists in Myanmar who were sentenced to seven years in prison for chronicling the grisly killing of ten members of the Rohingya minority. The murderers whom they identified received ten-year sentences.
These are not the only heroic victims of the war on truth, Time notes. It cites others among the fifty-two journalists murdered and the more than two hundred and fifty reporters imprisoned worldwide this year. But the four journalists and one newspaper chosen reflect a range of threats to the truth in the early twenty-first century. “This ought to be a time when democracy leaps forward, an informed citizenry being essential to self-government. Instead, it’s in retreat,” Time notes. “Three decades after the Cold War defeat of a blunt and crude autocracy, a more clever brand takes nourishment from the murk that surrounds us. The old-school despot embraced censorship. The modern despot, finding that more difficult, foments mistrust of credible fact, thrives on the confusion loosed by social media and fashions the illusion of legitimacy from supplicants.”
In the United States, manipulation of the truth is now so integral to politics that the Washington Post announced this week that its barometer for falsehoods—from one to four Pinocchios—was no longer enough. It launched a new category: the “Bottomless Pinocchio.” The Post’s Web site now has a separate page devoted just to bottomless liars. “A politician needs to repeat a false claim at least twenty times before it ends up on the page,” Glenn Kessler, the chief Washington Post fact checker, told me.
So far, there’s only one name on it: President Trump. “President Trump has posed a unique challenge because, unlike most politicians, he will continue to say things that are not true even after he has been fact-checked,” Kessler said. “We can’t keep reprinting the fact check, but we wanted to highlight these false statements in a way that calls attention to them and gives readers an easy-to-find reference guide.” Trump has repeated the utter falsehood that his tax cut is the largest in history (a hundred and twenty-three times), that the economy during his Presidency is the strongest ever (ninety-nine times), and that the border wall has been started (eighty-six times). The full list of lies on the Post’s Web site is much longer. “We hope it will be a disincentive to other politicians tempted to follow Trump’s lead,” Kessler said.
Sorting through the Person of the Year nominees, who ranged from Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin to Christine Blasey Ford and the families separated at the border, “it became clear that the manipulation and abuse of truth is really the common thread in so many of this year’s major stories,” Ed Felsenthal, the editor of Time, said on NBC’s “Today” show, on Tuesday. For the same reason, Trump came in second, and the special counsel Robert Mueller ranked third. (My bet—Mueller is Time’s Person of the Year in 2019.)
“The Guardians and Mueller are seeking the truth, while Trump distorts it. It’s the yin and yang of our times,” Kessler added. “There has been fake news since humans learned to talk. But what is new is that fake news and untruths can travel so much faster around the globe, and people’s understanding of the facts can be manipulated so easily. This increases the incentives for authoritarian regimes to crack down on reporters who expose the lies.” The Buddhist riots and military crackdown against the Rohingya in Myanmar, he noted, were the result of misleading posts on Facebook. The government then went after the media, including the two Reuters correspondents, who exposed what happened.
The number of journalists killed in 2018 is a fifty-five per cent increase over last year, Courtney Radsch, the advocacy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me. Aside from the journalists who were killed in the U.S. (five), others died in Afghanistan (thirteen), Syria (nine), India (five), with smaller numbers in Yemen, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Libya, Nicaragua, Slovakia, Somalia, and the Central African Republic.
“The Time selection is particularly appropriate in a year in which the free press is under greater threat than in any other period in living memory,” Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House and a former national editor at the Washington Post, told me. “The profound, growing threats to press freedom include government deployment of troll armies against critical voices, economic warfare against dissenting news outlets, and unremitting and scurrilous attacks by politicians on fact-based journalism as illegitimate or even ‘fake news.’ These campaigns of vilification have helped pave the way to physical attacks against journalists, including murder.”
Time’s choice of Khashoggi comes two days after CNN reported the contents of a classified transcript of the Saudi journalist’s murder, which was recorded by Turkish intelligence and later provided to the U.S. and other Western governments. His last words were reportedly “I can’t breathe . . . I can’t breathe.” A few moments later, the tape recorded the sound of a bone saw at work. The Turkish government claims that the saw was brought in by the fifteen-member hit squad to dismember Khashoggi’s body. The forensic scientist is heard advising the others to listen to music in their headphones if the saw’s sounds bother them.
The murder of Khashoggi, who had dared to criticize the headstrong Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, for his aggressive policies at home and across the Middle East, reflects the pivotal role of the press as well as its vulnerability. Khashoggi’s killing has had a rippling impact that almost certainly would have surprised him. It has led to the deepest challenge to U.S.-Saudi relations since they were cemented by Franklin Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud, the founder of the modern kingdom, in the nineteen-forties. Yet his body has still not been found. And M.B.S., as the crown prince is known, has faced no consequences at home or from allied governments. Earlier this month, he was photographed with the heads of government from the world’s nineteen other major economies, including Trump.
“There’s not a smoking gun—there’s a smoking saw,” the Republican senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, said last week, after a C.I.A. briefing about Khashoggi’s murder. “You have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this was orchestrated and organized by people under the command of M.B.S. and that he was . . . involved in the demise of Mr. Khashoggi.” The Republican Bob Corker, of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, predicted, “If the crown prince went in front of a jury, he would be convicted in thirty minutes.” Instead, eighteen other Saudis have been detained, but the kingdom has not even released their names.
Over the past year, the number of journalists detained also sets a record, Radsch, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said. Most were arrested on charges of criticizing the state, and many for allegedly reporting false news. Turkey, China, and Egypt account for more than half of the arrests worldwide. More than a dozen journalists were detained in Saudi Arabia. “Journalists have been caught in the crosshairs amid the global rise in populism, the delegitimization of democracy and its foundational principle of press freedom, and the ongoing global war against terrorism and extremism, in which journalism is so often equated with terrorism,” she said.
The Time cover gives well-deserved credit to the media at a time when it is besieged by claims of fake news. The problem is that it doesn’t change the challenges of winning the war for the truth.