What is the value of a journalist’s life? President Donald Trump indirectly put a number on it this week. It’s something less than $9 billion. How can we reach that conclusion? On a Sunday appearance on NBC TV, President Trump said the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was much less important to him than Saudi Arabia’s continued purchase of U.S. weaponry. Between 2013 and 2017, the Saudis bought $9 billion in U.S. produced arms, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and Mr. Trump said in no uncertain terms that he wouldn’t let something like the brutal murder of a journalist get in the way of that.
Trading lives and principles for profits isn’t something to brag about; it represents a shameful abandonment of our most cherished freedoms. But there was the president of the most powerful nation on the planet doing just that on Sunday. He told the host of “Meet the Press” he had little interest in an independent U.N. report that found "credible evidence" to warrant further investigation into the possible role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman into Khashoggi’s death. The report also called for the FBI to investigate. Mr. Trump couldn’t commit himself even to making that call — or, presumably, even tweeting the request.
"Saudi Arabia is a big buyer of (U.S. arms) product. That means something to me. It's a big producer of jobs," he told Chuck Todd. He went on to say that the journalist’s torture, assassination and dismemberment at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul "didn't come up" when he and the crown prince spoke last Thursday. Why would it? Neither individual obviously cared to discuss it. Khashoggi was hated by the Saudi royal family for his blistering criticism; the president was simply indifferent. Only a “fool,” Mr. Trump explained to his TV interviewer, would refuse to do business with an ally. Incidentally, the list of fools apparently includes the GOP-controlled Senate, which last Thursday voted 53-45 to block the Trump administration from selling arms to Saudi Arabia, a measure the president has promised to veto.
Why should Americans care about the life of a journalist? President Trump and his political allies have certainly made reporters and editors, photographers and TV camera people, and pretty much anyone whose job it is to seek out and report accurate and truthful information to the public a target — and not just figuratively. The terms “fake news” and “enemy of the people” haven’t just gained currency at the president’s political rallies, they’ve been used around the world by tyrants to suppress press freedoms. Journalism has long been a dangerous occupation, but it’s gotten demonstrably worse in recent years. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports 54 journalists killed on the job last year — either deliberately targeted or because they were caught in dangerous circumstances. That’s more than twice the death toll of two decades earlier.
We feel this threat most acutely in Maryland where the attack on the Capital-Gazette newsroom and the slaughter of five of our colleagues hits a milestone this week. On Friday, it will be one-year since that deadly rampage in Annapolis that took the lives of Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters. The alleged shooter, who had for years complained about an article the newspaper wrote about him, is scheduled to be put on trial this fall. Yet no matter what happens to him, it would be unforgivable to see these much-loved men and women forgotten, their sacrifice treated as a mere statistic. That’s why we are proud that Tribune Publishing, this newspaper’s owner, and Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin are among those leading the drive for a Fallen Journalists Memorial in Washington, D.C. to honor those who have perished.
Americans are always welcome to debate the merits of any news report or commentary. We welcome such criticisms and strive to improve upon our work. But make no mistake. There is a difference between debate and demagoguery just as there is a difference between pledging one’s belief in the First Amendment and selling one’s soul, even when the sales price is measured in the billions of dollars. One need not have known Jamal Khashoggi or the Annapolis Five to mourn their deaths. Just as one need not be American to understand how crucial the role of a free press. Democracy here and anywhere can’t function without it, and we would set an example to the world by recognizing the sacrifices of the men and women who gave their lives to protect it.