Minnesota should be America’s ‘Nordic model’ on press freedom

a stack of newspapers representing journalism

Photo: Colourbox
Trustworthy, truthful journalism is the “main vaccine against disinformation,” according to Reporters Without Borders.

Star Tribune

Coronavirus vaccine is not all that’s in short supply worldwide.

Trustworthy, truthful journalism—the “main vaccine against disinformation,” according to Reporters Without Borders—is completely or partly blocked in 73% of the 180 nations ranked in the organization’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index, which was released this week.

Only 7% of nations have a “good” environment for journalism, a grim, slim sliver, compared with the 20% deemed “fairly good,” the 33% labeled “problematic,” the 29% considered “bad” and the 12% “very bad” for press freedom. And because so many of the latter categories represent more densely populated African or Asian nations like China (177th, just behind the world’s worst places for media freedom: Eritrea, North Korea, and Turkmenistan), the proportion of people denied the disinformation vaccine of a free press is even more egregious.

In the Middle East and North Africa, which remain “the toughest and most dangerous for journalists,” the pandemic has “exacerbated the problems of a press that is already in its death throes,” the report stated. Overall, Africa “continues to be the most violent continent for journalists,” and brutality in Belarus is among the reasons Eastern Europe and Central Asia were ranked second lowest.

Europe and the Americas are the continents with the best environment for press freedom, but Reporters Without Borders notes that the Americas had the most significant deterioration in the regional violations score. Portions of Europe were worthy of concern, too, including in notable nations like Germany (13th), France (34th), and Italy (41st). But in what’s become an annual, expected exception, Scandinavian nations led the list (Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark ranked first through fourth, respectively). This performance, the report states,“clearly confirms the success of the ‘Nordic model’ in upholding press freedom.”

Benjamin Bigelow, an assistant professor of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, said that journalism is an integrated component of a “holistic social model, or a sort of ideal of how societies should function.”

This media-society symbiosis relies on trust, said Poul Houe, a University of Minnesota professor emeritus of Scandinavian Languages and Literature. Houe, who hails from Denmark, said in an e-mail exchange, “The shaft that drives this societal engine is public trust,” which he said is high in Scandinavia. “People are inclined to trust, not only other people, but news and unfamiliar facts—until reasons for not doing so become tangible—as well as government and the authorities responsible for the public’s right to freely assess and articulate its take on both.”

Trust, said Bigelow, “goes both ways, where there’s a recognition that the public trusts you, so you have to maintain that trust.”

Such trust was once more apparent in the United States, which has dropped 12 places in the index since 2013. “I suspect that a lot of Americans would be disappointed to discover that in the World Press Freedom Index this year the United States is at 44 and not higher,” said Anna K. Nelson, executive director of Reporters Without Borders USA. “And so maybe we need to be looking at those [Nordic] countries.”

And maybe the United States—and Minnesota—should be looking at the Nordic model. Consider the recent headline “Journalism under siege in Minnesota” on a Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) story about journalists “subjected to numerous instances of mistreatment” during recent protests here.

“It was definitely scary—I’ve never been in a situation like that with so many police officers hitting me, hitting my equipment,” Joshua Rashaad McFadden, a Black freelance reporter, told CJR. Police apparently did not believe his credentials were real, he added.

Others clearly identifying themselves as members of the press were nonetheless targeted, including Carolyn Sung, an Asian-American CNN producer who said she was zip-tied by police who yelled, “Do you speak English?” before being taken to a nearby jail and subjected to an invasive search (she was released hours later).

Several more reporters, photographers and editors faced vile and even violent treatment, including two Star Tribune journalists who were among those injured in incidents that stained the state’s reputation nationally and even internationally, given the global glare already on the Derek Chauvin trial.

And this came after a judge issued a temporary restraining order barring the use of physical force or chemical agents against journalists. Nonetheless, on the same night of the order, some journalists were ordered to lie on their stomachs while officers photographed them and their credentials.

Tim Evans, a freelance photographer, told The Associated Press that an officer punched him in the face, tore off his credentials, forced him on to his stomach, and put his knee into his back. “I was yelling ‘press,’” Evans told The Associated Press. “He said he didn’t care and to shut the [expletive] up.”

After the fact, Gov. Tim Walz expressed regret and called the incidents “unacceptable.” Democracy, he said, “cannot thrive without a free and fair and safe press.”

And yet the press has not been safe in Brooklyn Center this April and in Minneapolis last May amid similar targeting of journalists during protests after George Floyd’s murder. And nationwide, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker tabulated 415 assaults on journalists, 137 arrests or detentions, 109 incidences of equipment damage, and 31 journalists or news organizations being subpoenaed. All in 2020. And all in a country that was once a beacon of media freedom.

“A journalist has a job to do; they are not the ‘enemy of the people,’” said Nelson, referring to former President Donald Trump’s Stalin-era slur. “They’re there to shine a light on stories that deserve to be told. And sometimes those are really uncomfortable truths. We should embrace that rather than fear it.”

An uncomfortable truth is that respect for the press wasn’t foundational for some sworn to uphold the law—including the First Amendment—in a state that should shine the light Nelson describes.

By definition, Nelson’s organization is globally focused. But she took time to focus on Minnesota, her home state, where she recalls a “really strong sense of civic responsibility, of giving back, or being part of solutions, of being a good citizen.”

Houe, who can contrast Scandinavia and Minnesota on a professional and personal level, said that “it’s my sense that the social values of a majority of Americans, Minnesotans, Twin Cities dwellers, are not all that inconsistent with the consensus-based ‘Nordic model’ of Scandinavia proper. At the same time, however, it’s also my sense that a disproportionally large minority of Americans are at a far remove from that very consensus.”

Society is riven with divisions, so a consensus won’t coalesce quickly. But on this much Minnesotans should agree: The First Amendment should be respected and protected, and the North Star state should be its own Nordic model for the rest of America.

This article originally appeared in the June 18, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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John Rash

John Rash is an editorial writer and columnist at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.