Thank you, Meryl Streep.
I often have been annoyed by Hollywood stars who use award shows to make political statements, although I have made exceptions for those who support causes that I also happen to support. Call me human.
I would have been delighted by Streep’s pitch for press freedom and the Committee to Protect Journalists even if — full disclosure —I were not a member of its board.
Streep, who supported Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, criticized Trump in her speech for mocking a New York Times reporter with a disability. Trump denies that he was mocking the reporter. Yet videotape appears quite clearly to show him entertaining a rally crowd by mocking the reporter.
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Of course, Trump responded to Streep by ignoring her, right? After all, a president-elect has more important things to worry about than the displeasure of a Hollywood star, right? Yes, I’m kidding. After all, we’re talking about Donald Trump, long-time believer, as one of his biographers put it, of “counter-punching” even the mildest attack.
Trump, who has praised Streep’s talents as “excellent” in the past, lashed back this time with typical Trumpian excess. In three tweets the next morning he called the winner of Golden Globes, Academy Awards, Emmies and numerous other awards over her nearly four-decade career “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” and a “Hillary flunky.”
Considering the source, Streep should consider all that a compliment.
But she also had a more serious message about the rise of intolerance as a campaign tool. “You and all of us in this room really belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now,” she told the audience at the event which is held by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, repeating a joke told earlier by fellow actor Hugh Laurie, “Think about it, Hollywood, foreigners and the press.”
She then called on “the famously well-healed Hollywood Foreign Press (Association) and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists because we are going to need them going forward, and they'll need us to safeguard the truth.”
Yet, as partisan as the Trump-Streep clash may sound, it is important to note that the CPJ is nonpartisan in its advocacy for press freedom.
The organization protested the 2010 court order that exposed Fox News reporter James Rosen to possible prosecution as an alleged “aide, abettor and/or conspirator” of an indicted leak defendant, simply for doing his job as a journalist. Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder later called that order his biggest regret.
CPJ also protested the Obama administration’s order of New York Times reporter James Risen to testify against a defendant or go to jail. The administration eventually ended its pursuit of that case, too.
In a tough 2013 CPJ report on President Barack Obama’s administration and the press, still posted on the CPJ.org website, Leonard Downie, a former executive editor of the Washington Post, criticized the Obama administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information as “the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration,” when he was one of the editors involved in the Post’s Watergate investigation.
As Risen pointed out in a recent New York Times op-ed, if Trump “decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the FBI to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama.”
Obama himself has bristled at that notion. It was in response to pressure from both parties in Congress that the administration became so aggressive in its pursuit of leaks, Team Obama points out. As a result, over the past eight years, the administration prosecuted nine cases involving whistle-blowers and leakers, compared to only three in all previous administrations.
But if that much of an increase in prosecution comes from an administration that strongly defends press freedom, what can we expect from the administration of a man who herded reporters into pens in the back of rallies so he could more dramatically call the media “dishonest,” “disgusting,” “slime” and “scum.”
Trump often has been compared to such autocrats as Vladimir Putin or Silvio Berlusconi. Let’s hope he doesn’t try any harder to imitate them in office. Press freedom, like many other fine things in life, often goes unappreciated until it’s gone.
Reach Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.