Freedom to scrutinize public figures remains essential to a healthy democracy (State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/Wikimedia Commons).

Reporter Evan Gershkovich of the Wall Street Journal has been detained in Russia for more than a year. It’s been nearly twelve years since Austin Tice, a freelance journalist for the Washington Post, was abducted in Syria, where he remains a hostage. In early May, Israeli authorities raided Al Jazeera’s Jerusalem office and shut down its broadcasting operations. The Committee to Protect Journalists says that nineteen journalists around the world have been killed so far this year, many, of course, in Gaza. In 2022, at least 320 journalists were imprisoned worldwide. 

We associate incidents and conditions like these with other countries, those that don’t enjoy the democratic freedoms we possess and profess to value, including freedom of the press. But that freedom is increasingly under attack here too. Reporters Without Borders says that press freedom in the United States has hit a historic low, with the country falling to fifty-fifth place in a ranking of 180 countries. That puts us barely ahead of Hungary and Gambia, and behind Romania, Chile, and Ghana—other nations where the state of press freedom is rated “problematic.” 

According to the report, changes in the political environment since the 2016 election of Donald Trump play a role. Trump has consistently called the media “the enemy of the people,” a phrase he is amplifying as he campaigns for a return to office. He has repeatedly attacked the press at his rallies and on social media. He threatens to sue outlets and journalists whose reporting he doesn’t like, and promises to “open up our libel laws” to make it easier to do so.

Trump is not alone in expressing hostility to the press. Georgia representative Marjorie Taylor Greene has called for journalists to be jailed “for what they did to Trump and our great country.” Dozens of states and municipalities have enacted laws barring reporters from public spaces, including legislative sessions. In Alabama, Kansas, and Oklahoma, government officials have raided the offices of local papers, shut down their operations, and arrested employees. The Freedom of the Press Foundation has reported nearly two thousand incidents of official interference with U.S. news media since 2017. In the same period, there have been nearly nine hundred alleged criminal assaults on reporters by members of the public. Small organizations with limited financial resources face special challenges. They are “so afraid of the risk of a criminal prosecution, an aggressive search, or a lawsuit, regardless of how realistic of a threat those are” that they “may alter what they’d be reporting on otherwise,” the ACLU’s Jennifer Granick told the Atlantic.

No one is entitled to deference or special treatment merely because they speak from a position of religious authority.

Threats can come from unexpected places. In April, Commonweal received a cease-and-desist letter from Word on Fire, the media ministry founded by Bishop Robert Barron, head of the Winona–Rochester diocese in Minnesota. The letter objected to a paragraph mentioning Word on Fire in an online opinion piece by Massimo Faggioli that examined the influence of Donald Trump and Trumpism in American Catholicism. In a second cease-and-desist letter, Word on Fire objected even more strenuously to an editor’s note explaining our decision to pull that paragraph as a courtesy and registering Word on Fire’s unhappiness about being associated in any way with Trump. Threatening to take legal action against Commonweal, Word on Fire characterized both the article and the editor’s note as libelous and defamatory.

We were very surprised that Barron would allow Word on Fire to threaten us with a lawsuit. Public figures should expect journalistic scrutiny, precisely because they are public figures. This includes those who bring their faith into the public square. They can complain about criticism: it is their right. But they are not exempt from it. They have no special protection against opinions about their agendas, their comments, or the political company they keep. Further, no one is entitled to deference or special treatment merely because they speak from a position of religious authority. This includes American bishops, even or especially those who maintain a highly visible public presence through interviews, social media, and popular media ministries. 

Bishop Barron has called for a more civil discourse in our politics and in the Church. Most recently, he expressed this desire in a May 14 livestream event called “Civilize It: Unifying a Divided Church,” where he appeared with San Diego cardinal Robert McElroy and Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas (both of whom have written for Commonweal). Citing Aquinas, Bernard Lonergan, and others, Barron spoke eloquently of the value of productive disagreement and “spirited intelligent dialogue” while bemoaning the cheapened discourse of the moment. “Catholics at each other’s throats,” he said. “Catholics bickering with each other: how evangelically disedifying that is.”

We couldn’t agree more. Word on Fire might have expressed its concerns about Faggioli’s article through a “spirited intelligent dialogue” with us. A letter to the editor would have been one obvious way to begin if Word on Fire believed we and Faggioli were in need of fraternal correction. As it turns out, Jesus is quite explicit about what such correction should and shouldn’t look like (Matthew 18:15–20). Who better to model the Christian way of fraternal correction for Catholics today than an American bishop with a hugely influential media ministry? We suspect a letter to the editor would have resulted in an edifying—or at least clarifying—exchange. It would also have spared Word on Fire from being perceived as yet another well-funded organization intent on silencing its critics through litigation—and as yet another example of “Catholics at each other’s throats.” On multiple media platforms, Bishop Barron has invoked the thinking of the founders in support of his opinions about American democracy. We trust that his understanding of their intentions extends to what the First Amendment says about freedom of the press.

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Published in the June 2024 issue: View Contents
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