This is part of a new project at TED called “Hidden Voices.”
One of my first reporting jobs was at the Texas Observer, a respected muckraking magazine in a state with its fair share of muck. The old office had a poster of a printing press on the wall with the words: “The tyrant’s foe, the people’s friend.” That iconic image has appeared in plenty of newspapers and magazines since the 1800s, but a lot has changed for journalism since then. When I show the print to my investigative journalism students today, they understand the sentiment, but none of them can identify the machinery — their tools aren’t mechanical, they’re digital.
If we want to continue protecting the rights of journalists to be “the tyrant’s foe, the people’s friend,” we need new tools for a digital era. Technological innovations have enabled widespread government surveillance of journalists and made it more difficult for reporters to communicate with their sources safely and securely. Gone are the days of Bob Woodward meeting “Deep Throat” in a parking garage (or at least it’s much more difficult, with GPS, CCTV cameras and other surveillance tools being ubiquitous).
That’s where Trevor Timm and the Freedom of the Press Foundation come in. In his TED Talk, “How free is our freedom of the press?” Timm reveals a bold new solution: SecureDrop. It’s a software program that lets anyone anonymously communicate with media outlets. You don’t need the technical knowledge of Edward Snowden, just a quick download and a code name. It has already been adopted by the New York Times, the Washington Post and many others. And, as Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab reports, it’s easier to use than you might think.
Tools like these are needed in the United States now more than ever. On his first full day in office, President Donald Trump said, “I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth.” His chief White House strategist, Steve Bannon has said that the media is “the opposition party,” and that the press should “keep its mouth shut.” The new administration has shut down the social media accounts of government agencies, and its supporters have embraced calling journalists “lügenpresse” — a German phrase for “lying press” that was used during the Third Reich. Trump has rescinded his ban on the Washington Post and other news outlets; instead, he tweets to praise sympathetic media outlets, and label critical outlets as “fake news.” The president of the United States says that news media are “the enemy of the people.”
A free press is a reflection of a free society. And an intimidated or imprisoned press is reflective of the same. If reporters fear surveillance or imprisonment — of themselves or of their sources — they cannot fulfill their core responsibility of speaking truth to power and holding government accountable. In this way, the work of Trevor Timm and the Freedom of the Press Foundation isn’t just protecting journalists, it’s protecting democracy.