Wednesday, May 3, was celebrated in some quarters as World Press Freedom Day. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres drew attention to the observance recently.
“Journalists go to the most dangerous places to give voice to the voiceless,” Guterres said. “Media workers suffer character assassination, sexual assault, detention, injuries, and even death. We need leaders to defend a free media. This is crucial to counter prevailing misinformation. And we need everyone to stand for our right to truth.
“On World Press Freedom Day, I call for an end to all crackdowns against journalists — because a free press advances peace and justice for all. When we protect journalists, their words and pictures can change our world.”
It may come as a shock here, where “the leader of the free world” has declared the media “the enemy of the people,” but there are still corners of the world where members of the press are respected for the hard work inherent in the profession. And some may be shocked to learn that here in America, there was a time when the work of journalists like Ida B. Wells, Ernie Pyle, and Edward R. Murrow was respected, because there was a public understanding that delivering the news to the people, keeping the citizenry informed about the day-to-day issues of their community as well as the high-level doings of the government and speaking truth to power-hungry politicians — like [former U.S. Senator] Joseph McCarthy — was a good thing.
Even with its flaws and the sins of big newspaper owners, journalism was still considered a reasonably honorable profession. You could say that oddly quaint viewpoint goes way back to the founding of the country. There is some evidence — and this is not fake news — that some of the founders considered the press essential to the democracy. Consider the words of just one former president, and framer of the Constitution.
Thomas Jefferson said in 1786 to John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” The following year, Jefferson said to the American soldier and statesman Edward Carrington, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
And then again, in 1823, Jefferson said to Lafayette, the French revolutionary who fought for the American side during the War of Independence, “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”
Yes, once upon a time, some American presidents respected what the press offered a free and open democracy.
Still, that was a long time ago. So you might ask: What has a free press ever done for me? Well, that depends on your perspective.
For instance, Ida B. Wells, one of the first investigative journalists in the American press, shone a powerful light in the international arena on the rising incidence of lynching in the post-Reconstruction era. She reported well-documented facts that most blacks who were lynched were murdered not for committing some crime, but as a means of maintaining white supremacy and economic control.
Another example could be found in CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow. Through his unflinching determination to expose the truth behind Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy’s Communist witch hunts, Murrow finally precipitated the end to a four-year reign of political terror which had ruined the lives of dozens of American citizens. A journalist helped bring literal McCarthyism to an end.
In a more famous example, there was a little thing the Washington Post did in the early 1970s. Along with reporting in other newspapers and magazines at the time, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein famously shed light on the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate, an office complex in the nation’s capital. That, as even the weakest student of American history could tell you, is what led to the Watergate scandal, and the resignation of a president who was not too fond of the press. It’s not every day that a POTUS resigns, making Watergate the case in point for why a free press matters.
Maybe you can see that, at times, having the press free has meant promoting freedom, transparency, and justice for some in this country. It would be easy to make the case that that’s still true.
Today, though, perceptions of the work journalists do have changed with the times. After many years of growing mistrust of the media — which now, in the minds of the populace at large includes everything from mainstream media in all its forms to social media to tabloid media to alt-right media to completely fake news — we arrive in 2017 with a president who declares war on the press.
To be sure, the current president is not the first chief executive to have a fraught relationship with the press. A piece in the Boston Globe recently noted that at times presidents as disparate as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, George Washington, and George H. W. Bush took issue with how they were being covered, and found ways of delivering their message directly to the people — even before Twitter.
But what is unprecedented here, of course, is to have the White House restricting widely respected news organizations when they don’t toe the party line or don’t report on the president the way he wants them to, and blaming the press for things which clearly they only report — the size of the inauguration crowd, the candidate’s attacks on American intelligence agencies, his (formerly?) great admiration for a Russian oligarch known for enriching his friends and suspected of having his enemies murdered, for example.
This level of executive branch animosity against an institution considered important enough for the First Amendment of the Constitution to protect it, is kind of unusual, to say the least. In this country, that is.
There are, of course, plenty of other countries where regimes have chafed because the press dared to report what they were doing, where that anger turned into repressive action. Consider just a few recent headlines from around the world reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ):
Nigeria: Nigeria religious police assault journalists; Nigeria detains 13 journalists, bloggers, and media workers; How Nigeria’s cybercrime law is being used to try to muzzle the press; Nigerian secret police arrest online journalist; Nigerian military threatens journalist for not revealing sources
Turkey (CPJ recently branded Turkey the worst in the world when it comes to persecuting members of the press): Twelve journalists acquitted of terrorism charges after six-year trial; Journalist successfully sues police for wrongful arrest; News website censored for 24th time; Kurdish news website censored for 10th time; Italian journalist and documentary filmmaker to be deported
Russia: Journalists detained covering Russia protests; Journalist arrested in Moscow on Belarusian extradition request; Russian security services detain journalists in border city, order them to leave; Russian security forces raid journalist Zoya Svetova’s home; Crimean journalist faces trial on separatism charges; Journalist threatened with murder in Russia
There are other older cases of press suppression, such as in Nazi Germany where the state bought up newspapers, pressured the papers to get rid of liberal and Jewish editors, pressured Jewish owners to sell, and dictated that all remaining papers constantly praise National Socialism and trumpet the party line.
Before the Nazis, but continuing under their reign, the term “Lügenpresse” — or “lying press” — came to be used as a slur against those who criticized the ruling party, and Jews in particular. More recently, officially banned in Germany, the term has become the rallying cry for right-wing xenophobic groups in that country. And as you know, last year, it was heard at a rally in favor of America’s new president.
In various places in the world, including here in the so-called Land of the Free, CPJ points out that journalists face challenges from surveillance, harassment, limited transparency, the questioning of libel laws.
So the question is, what to do about it? What do you do when your freedom to carry out your responsibilities is threatened, when your integrity in doing that job is under attack? Not being the spokesman for all members of the press, I nevertheless have a small bit of advice.
To paraphrase a wartime line which has become a cliché of late, Keep Calm and Press On. It is the duty of journalists to stay the course, to keep speaking truth to power, to keep doing as proclaimed by the motto of the first newspaper company I ever worked for: give light and let the people find their own way. That is, after all, the job of a journalist: to keep shedding light into dark places, uncovering that which powerful forces want to keep secret for their own ends, to keep doing what Gene Kelly’s character said journalists should do in Inherit the Wind, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Recently, in a Newseum symposium, Pulitzer Prize-winner David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post said that members of the media need to make sure we’re transparent in what we do, show readers that we come honestly by the information that we publish, and prove that what we present is real and verifiably true. That’s an antidote to the charge of “fake news.”
It can be a dirty job. It can be a thankless task. It can be one where all sorts of aspersions are cast upon your name — justly or unjustly. But someone has to do it. Recent history has shown that as nature continues to abhor a vacuum, where there is an absence of professional coverage, bloggers, trained or not, will rush in to fill the void. Sometimes that can be a good thing, but in every case it is always better for those who are trained to not only observe, but to shed preconceived notions and go where the story truly leads, to bring news to the masses, presented in a way that is understandable and, to the degree possible, free from the taint of partisan opinion.
Yes, there are still those of us who believe in that.
Thankfully, there are also those who still believe in the power of the press to do good. In the wake of the current president’s undisguised hostility toward the news media, there has been an upswing of support, both verbal and monetary, for traditional mainstream media.
And there are other hopeful signs. Recently, former President George W. Bush spoke out about the value of the press. He said, “I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy. We needed the media to hold people like me to account. Power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive, and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power. … It’s kind of hard to tell others to have an independent free press when we’re not willing to have one ourselves.”
There has been a lot of time and effort invested recently in teaching people (including children) media literacy — how to read and understand news, how to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to parsing out which reports to believe and which to be more skeptical of — or outright disbelieve. If the press is doing its job correctly, such efforts can only help the cause of rebuilding trust with the audience.
At the moment, it seems that the public is responding to the threats, real or perceived, to the freedom of the press. Whether that show of support for the press is tied inextricably to the movement of resistance to the current administration’s policies, or will presage an ongoing upsurgence in appreciation for what the free press means to a free society, only time will tell.
Will the First Amendment fall victim to political efforts to restrict it? Will the issue of trust in the value of the press become and remain one of the faultlines under the fractious divisions separating red America from blue? Frankly, it’s hard to predict the future with certainty.
But then again, it’s really our job as journalists — not to predict the future but — to document history as it happens, to tell our readers and viewers and listeners what’s happening now, to help them understand the world they’re living in, while they’re living in it. If we do that, for as long as we have the power to do that in this country, we will be discharging our duty, making good on our end of the bargain, using the great power entrusted to us — freedom of the press — in a responsible way.
This piece was adapted from a talk given recently to the Alabama Media Professionals.