The head of the Committee to Protect Journalists tells THR that hundreds of “average people” have been making donations to the organization since the actress’ fiery anti-Trump speech. Says Joel Simon of the president-elect: “He’ll be angry, no question.”
The most explicit call to action in Meryl Streep’s memorable, now-viral speech about Hollywood, media and President-elect Donald J. Trump at the Golden Globes on Jan. 8 was her plea to join in support of The Committee to Protect Journalists.
The 35-year-old, New York-based nonprofit primarily defends reporters at risk of imprisonment or death for their work in repressive countries and conflict zones. But lately it’s raised concerns about press freedom in the United States.
The Hollywood Reporter talked to CPJ head Joel Simon the morning after Streep spoke.
Did you know Streep was going to mention the CPJ?
We had no idea.
What’s the response been so far?
Amazing – we got 500 new donations overnight and a couple hundred more during the day. They continue to come in and it’s mostly average people based on the size of the donation, so that’s really encouraging. Obviously, separately, it’s just enormous visibility and resonance about what’s at stake here. The thing about Meryl Streep is that we’re used to journalists championing this issue. She said the press needs to go out there and do what it needs to do and needs to be defended by all of us.
This was the first time most people had heard of the organization – it’s not a household name.
We’re primarily a front-line organization, protecting journalists who are doing this day-to-day work that’s incredibly dangerous and difficult. When we were founded, the U.S. media was really strong and there was a sense that we needed to look outward from our privilege and help others. And now that gap has narrowed and we are facing a press freedom challenge at home. While we of course recognize the challenges are different – it’s not Syria – the U.S. has been in a position of global leadership, the example we set for the press in this country has resonated all over the world, and so we expect to be very engaged during the Trump administration.
The CPJ harshly criticized the Obama administration over its own leak investigations and use of surveillance.
I think it’s laid a legal framework, and a kind of rationale, that’s very threatening in terms of what might come. When Trump tweeted out his displeasure that some of the information from the [Russian hacking] intelligence briefing leaked before he got it, that was a very menacing message. But that’s also a message the Obama administration sent pretty frequently in its own way. What’s fundamentally different is the overt hostility with Trump, the attacks on individual reporters, the threats to weaken libel laws. There’s a heightened rhetoric that is different.
How has the rise of social media weakened accountability reporting?
I think what keeps the press safe, what allows it to challenge powerful forces, is its utility. The press serves a vital role in terms of its ability to reach a mass audience with information that these powerful forces want to disseminate. But what’s happened is that technology has created a disintermediation, where if you’re ISIS you don’t need to talk to journalists, and you also can kill journalists. And if you’re a powerful politician, you previously needed to grapple with journalists, and now you can use your Twitter feed to do an end-run and disparage them and mock them. So essentially the media has less power.
What has the CPJ seen elsewhere that causes it to sound its alarm domestically now?
One of the things we’ve seen, without a direct analogy, is that if you look at the way autocratic leaders consolidate power, they challenge media as corrupt or that it doesn’t represent the views of the people. You see that rhetoric in Russia and Venezuela and Turkey. It’s not even ideological. If you can reduce the influence of the press, then if the public encounters reporting that might be threatening to you, and the general confidence in information is already low, it’s already much easier to dismiss it.
What’s the biggest open question of the Trump administration pertaining to the press?
Trump does not like to be criticized in the media. The media will criticize him and expose him in ways he doesn’t like. He’ll be angry, no question. Will it just be angry rants and tweets, or will it be translated into policies that are detrimental to how the media functions? We’ll see.
Will White House correspondents exist at the front lines of this dynamic?
The White House press corps has a role, but there was a time when it was more significant. The symbolism of the spokesperson for the administration submitting to harsh, hostile questions – difficult, probing questions from the media – is almost the most important thing itself. That’s a visible manifestation of that accountability role.
The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner has taken on an outsized, polarizing cultural role in Washington in the past couple of decades. Reporters hobnob with officials and Obama roasted Trump, seated nearby, in 2011. Will the party change?
That event does the media no favors. I would not be sad to see its demise.
To learn more about supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists, click here.