US Press Freedom Tracker launches with donation from 'body-slamming' congressman

The new database that will document affronts to press freedom in the U.S.

ByABC News
August 2, 2017, 9:51 AM

— -- A coalition of press freedom advocates launched the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker on Wednesday, a first-of-its-kind database that will document affronts to press freedom in the United States.

Managed by the Freedom of the Press Foundation and funded by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the project will collect and compile reports of the attacks, arrests, searches and stops that impede the work of those who inform the American public.

According to former Politico reporter Peter Sterne, who will serve as the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker’s first managing editor, groups that track press freedom in countries without strong press protections have set a high standard for what constitutes a press freedom violation — either the imprisonment or murder of a journalist — that excludes the vast majority of verifiable infringements on press freedom in the United States. Sterne hopes his project can fill that gap, because the erosion of the protections powering the United States’ famously free press could have far-reaching effects.

“The U.S. is often seen as a beacon of press freedom in the world,” Sterne told ABC News. “When freedom of the press in the U.S. is weakened, that has an effect around the world where other countries feel more emboldened to crack down on their own journalists.”

The launch comes at a particularly sensitive time for the American press, when public trust of the media has sunk to all-time lows as attacks on the credibility of major news organizations have been leveled from the highest levels of the U.S. government.

The tracker noted 19 arrests, 12 equipment searches and seizures, 11 physical attacks and four border stops of journalists so far in 2017. That tally includes a pair of high-profile incidents in May — the arrest of journalist Dan Heyman as he questioned a Trump administration official in West Virginia and the assault on Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs by then-GOP Congressional candidate Greg Gianforte in Montana.

Gianforte, who was ultimately elected to represent Montana in Congress, pled guilty to misdemeanor assault in June. He issued an apology and agreed to donate $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists “in the hope that perhaps some good can come of these events.” The press freedom watchdog put that donation toward the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which lists Rep. Gianforte as one of its funders.

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, says the bright idea was his.

“I called Trevor Timm, head of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and asked if he thought we should use Gianforte's compelled donation to underwrite the project,” Simon wrote in a blog post on the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker’s new website. “Timm liked the irony of using the settlement to ensure the systematic documentation of violations such as the one Gianforte committed."

Jacobs reportedly appreciated the gesture as well.

"This was a miserable experience that no one should have to go through," Jacobs told Simon. "But if some good is to come of it, I am happy about it."

While Sterne will not be keeping a running log of President Trump’s “fake news” accusations (“It would require too much work, and I don’t think it would be all that useful,” he said.), the project will highlight certain “public threats made to reporters and media organizations by U.S. politicians and other public figures” under the moniker “Chilling Statements.”

According to Sterne, this category will encompass incidents like Trump’s reported urging of then-FBI Director James Comey to jail journalists, Trump’s call to change libel laws to make it easier to sue news organizations and, yes, Trump’s tweet sharing a video of him “wrestling” CNN.

Sterne cautioned, however, that it is too early to draw conclusions from the data as to whether Trump’s rhetoric has corresponded with in a rise in press freedom violations and notes that the problem runs deeper than the current administration.

The aggressive prosecution of leakers of classified information, which Sterne will also be documenting, may have gained popularity under President Trump, Sterne said, but the strategy took shape under President Obama.

“I think that in the 21st century we have seen a crackdown on journalists that has been unprecedented,” Sterne said. “The Press Freedom Tracker is not a response to Trump, but Trump’s rhetoric has crystallized deeper issues and shown people why it matters so much.”