Concerns over press freedom under incoming US President Donald Trump were highlighted by a Hollywood legend during one of the industry’s glitziest evenings earlier this week.
While accepting her Cecil B DeMile award for lifetime achievement, superstar Meryl Streep expressed her disdain at various events which have taken place in recent months, while emphasising the need to support a free and critical press to ensure that power is held to account.
“We need a principled press to hold power to account, to call them on the carpet for every outrage. That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in our constitution.
“So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood foreign press, and all of us in our community, to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists, because we’re going to need them going forward, and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.”
While she did not mention Trump by name, Streep also referred to what she described as one of the standout performances she has ever seen – and not for the right reasons – the president-elect’s apparent mockery of disabled New York Times journalist, Serge Kovaleski in November 2015.
The multi-award winning actress went on to criticise bullying tactics from senior figures and the subsequent attitudes this can create.
“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modelled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing,”s he said, arguing “disrespect invited disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.”
While some may argue that Streep’s sentiments about foreigners and “vilified” outsiders expressed in her speech bear a sense of hypocrisy in terms of the elitist industry in which works, there can be no doubt that her words echoed general concerns for values, including press freedom, held by a large number of American and international viewers.
US press freedom under attack
While Trump’s arguments with the mainstream media have received widespread coverage and controversy, it is worth noting that the general atmosphere towards and among the American media is one of suspicion, and this has been brewing throughout Obama’s presidency.
Despite his early commitment to transparency and developing a close relationship with the media, Obama has been criticised for taking a number of restrictive measures against the press, and has been especially tough on whistleblowers during his tenure.
However, as Obama gets set to vacate the White House, the heightened sense of tension throughout the US media industry is palpable. CPJ took the unprecedented step of issuing a statement expressing their concerns over a Trump presidency and its impact on press freedom, labelling Trump “an unprecedented threat to the rights of journalists and to CPJ’s ability to advocate for press freedom around the world.”
As CPJ director, Joel Simon pointed out this week, there is genuine fear for media freedom under the future administration, “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,” he added.
Streep’s remarks have unsurprisingly provoked reaction from various corners, none more noticeable than from Trump himself.
The President-elect took to his favoured method of communication, Twitter, to express his views on Streep’s words, and his response was typically robust.
Calling her “a Hillary Lover” and dismissing her as “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood,” Trump once again denied that he had mocked Kovaleski, arguing that he was merely pointing out another false story in the “dishonest media.”
As Streep pointed out the danger of bullying and humiliating others, it seemed almost ironic that Trump would resort to name-calling in his response to the “Hillary flunky who lost big.”
However, it seems that the speech has provoked a more positive response among people supporting media freedom.
CPJ director, Simon noted the “amazing” response to the organisation in the light of Streep’s call to action: “[Donations] continue to come in and its 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,” said Simon, adding “she said the press needs to go out there and do what it needs to do and need to be defended by all of us.”
This is the crux of the issue; people need to be aware of the importance of media and press freedom, and journalists need to be supported enough in their jobs in order to effectively defend human rights, principles and social values.
As such, helping to raise awareness of these issues and championing press freedom might just represent one of Streep’s most impressive performances.