PROVIDENCE — President Trump’s anti-press rhetoric is undermining trust in American media and emboldening authoritarian leaders worldwide to crack down on reporters, New York Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger said at Brown University on Monday.
Sulzberger, who graduated from Brown in 2003 and first worked as a reporter at The Providence Journal, spoke to hundreds of people packed into a Brown auditorium delivering a speech titled “Free Press in Peril: The Growing Threats to Journalism Around the World.”
US leaders have long understood that press freedom is one of the nation’s “greatest exports,” Sulzberger said.
“The current administration, however, has retreated from our country’s historic role as defender of the free press,” he said. “And seeing that, other countries are targeting their own journalists with a growing sense of impunity.”
That isn’t just a problem for reporters, he said.
“It’s a problem for everyone — because this is how authoritarian leaders bury critical information, hide corruption, and even justify genocide,” Sulzberger said. “As John McCain once warned, when you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press.”
Sulzberger told a story he hadn’t previously shared publicly, saying that two years ago the newspaper received a call from a US government official warning that Declan Walsh, a Times reporter based in Egypt, was about to be arrested.
Such warnings are not unusual, but this one stood out because this official was alerting the Times without the knowledge or permission of the Trump administration, Sulzberger said.
“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,” he said. “The official feared punishment for even alerting us to the danger.”
So the Times turned to Walsh’s home country — Ireland — for help, and within an hour Irish diplomats had safely escorted Walsh to the airport before Egyptian forces could detain him. “We hate to imagine what could have happened had that brave official” not alerted the Times, he said.
Sulzberger said press freedom has been “an area of enduring consensus” among Americans from different political parties, ideologies and generations.
He noted Ronald Reagan once said, “There is no more essential ingredient than a free, strong and independent press to our continued success in what the founding fathers called our ‘noble experiment’ in self-government.’ ”
Despite this long tradition, Sulzberger said he does not expect Trump to stop his attacks on the press.
“If recent history is any guide, he may actually point to my comments today and claim that the Times has a political vendetta against him,” he said. “To be clear, I am not challenging the president’s recklessness because of his party, his ideology or his criticism of the Times. I am sounding the alarm because his words are dangerous and they are having real-world consequences.”
Sulzberger concluded by urging members of the audience to subscribe to newspapers and support groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“Most of all, carve out a place for journalism in your everyday life, and use what you learn to make a difference,” he said. “The true power of a free press is an informed, engaged citizenry.”
The United States has done more than any other country to bolster free expression and champion press freedom, Sulzberger said.
“The time has come for us to fight for those ideals again,” he said.