A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times (NYT), says President Trump has undermined “his own citizens’ faith in the news organizations attempting to hold him accountable” and has “effectively given foreign leaders permission to do the same with their countries’ journalists.”
And “they’ve eagerly embraced the approach,” he remarked while delivering a lecture at his alma mater, Brown University.
Sulzberger’s speech was newsworthy because he shared some new examples of threats to journalism in the age of Trump.
He said the Trump administration “has retreated from our country’s historical role as a defender of the free press,” and he described disturbing consequences both at home and abroad, according to a transcript of his speech, which was published on The Times website.
“Two years ago, we got a call from a United States government official warning us of the imminent arrest of a New York Times reporter based in Egypt named Declan Walsh,” Sulzberger said.
While these heads-ups are “actually fairly standard,” this particular call “took a surprising and distressing turn,” Sulzberger said. “We learned the official was passing along this warning without the knowledge or permission of the Trump administration. Rather than trying to stop the Egyptian government or assist the reporter, the official believed, the Trump administration intended to sit on the information and let the arrest be carried out. The official feared being punished for even alerting us to the danger.”
So the Times reached out to diplomats in Walsh’s native country, Ireland, and they took action: “Within an hour, Irish diplomats traveled to his house and safely escorted him to the airport before Egyptian forces could detain him.”
Sulzberger added, “We hate to imagine what would have happened had that brave official not risked their career to alert us to the threat.”
Then he shared another example, from earlier this year, when Times reporter David Kirkpatrick arrived in Egypt and was detained and deported “in apparent retaliation for exposing information that was embarrassing to the Egyptian government.” Kirkpatrick’s detention was reported at the time, but this detail was not: “When we protested the move,” Sulzberger said Monday, “a senior official at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo openly voiced the cynical worldview behind the Trump administration’s tolerance for such crackdowns. ‘What did you expect would happen to him?’ he said. ‘His reporting made the government look bad.’”
These are the types of stories we usually don’t hear — about the risks of international reporting — and how the risks have been magnified because Trump has, in the words of Sulzberger, both “inspired autocratic rulers around the world” and borrowed from them.
One of The Times’ top competitors, Washington Post editor Marty Baron, shared the speech on Monday night and said the Egypt stories “raise unsettling questions about how the US government might respond when American journalists are under threat overseas.”
In Monday’s speech, Sulzberger said “our foreign correspondents have experienced the weaponization of the ‘fake news’ charge firsthand. Last year, Hannah Beech, who covers Southeast Asia, was at a speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia. In the middle of his remarks, Mr. Hun Sen uttered a single phrase in English: ‘The New York Times.’ He said that The Times was so biased that it had been given a ‘fake news’ award by President Trump, and he threatened that if our story didn’t support his version of the truth, there would be consequences. Hannah felt a growing hostility in the crowd of thousands as the prime minister searched her out and warned, ‘The Cambodian people will remember your faces.’”
Sulzberger met with Trump in the summer of 2018 and tried to warn Trump about the dangers of labeling journalists as enemies.
“I implored him to reconsider his broader attacks on journalism, which I believe are dangerous and harmful to our country,” the publisher said at the time.
Various administration officials have asserted that Trump does, in fact, support press freedom around the world. But he routinely derides news organizations like The Times and tells people not to believe real reporting. He calls The Times failing, which it is not.
In Monday’s speech, Sulzberger said this is a “perilous moment for journalism,” in part because Trump’s “words are dangerous and having real-world consequences around the globe.”
But, he said, seeking a hopeful note, “even if the president ignores this alarm and continues on this path, there are important steps the rest of us can take to protect the free press and support those who dedicate their lives to seeking truth around the world.”