Defend Journalism That Speaks Truth to Power: From Ferguson to Washington

  • submit to reddit
Getty Images photographer Scott Olson is arrested while covering demonstrators Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. (Photo by Jeff Roberson/AP)

This post first appeared at The Nation.

“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both,” declared James Madison, the author and champion of the Bill of Rights. “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

This is still the essential truth of an American experiment that can only be advanced toward the equal and inclusive justice that did not exist in Madison’s time by a broadly informed and broadly engaged citizenry. When journalists are harassed, intimidated, threatened and detained, the basic premise of democracy — that the great mass of people, armed with information and perspective, and empowered to act upon it, will set right that which is made wrong by oligarchs — is assaulted.

Where assaults on the gatherers and purveyors of popular information occur, those assaults must be challenged immediately. Social media and then mainstream media did just that after Washington Post writer Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post writer Ryan Reilly were arrested, detained and then released without charges or an explanation by police in Ferguson, Missouri, as they were reporting on the tensions that developed after 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed in a police shooting. The detention of reporters is merely one illustration of the seriousness of the broader battering of civil liberties and civil rights in Ferguson, a battering so severe that Amnesty International has made the unprecedented move of deploying human rights observers to the city.

The detentions of Lowery and Reilly stirred an outcry. Washington Post editor Martin Baron decried the incident as “wholly unwarranted and an assault on the freedom of the press to cover the news.” President Obama said the next day, “Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs.” Amid a steady stream of reports that other reporters, still photographers and camera crews were being threatened, teargassed, assaulted and detained in Ferguson, forty-eight national media organizations and press freedom groups signed a letter to local authorities declaring, “This type of behavior is anathema to the First Amendment and to journalists everywhere.”

These are necessary answers to what happened with Lowery and Reilly, and to the growing list of complaints from journalists in Ferguson. Yet no one should be satisfied with emergency responses to glaring, and well-reported, assaults on the ability of journalists to do their work. It matters to express immediate outrage, but that is not a sufficient response, as has become evident in Ferguson — where Getty Images photographer Scott Olson was arrested on Monday, and where early Tuesday saw the arrests and jailing for several hours of The Intercept reporter Ryan Devereaux and German journalists Ansgar Graw, Frank Hermannt and Lukas Hermsmeier. Graw wrote after his release, “This was a very new experience. I’ve been in several conflict zones: I was in the civil war regions in Georgia, the Gaza strip, illegally visited the Kaliningrad region when travel to the Soviet Union was still strictly prohibited for westerners, I’ve been in Iraq, Vietnam and in China, I’ve met Cuba dissidents. But to be arrested and yelled at and be rudely treated by police? For that I had to travel to Ferguson and St. Louis in the United States of America.”

The news from Ferguson highlights the need for a broader defense of journalism and democracy.

There has to be a consistent and absolute defense of the rights not just of high-profile national reporters but of all journalists and all citizens who gather information, demand answers, speak truth to power and then seek to disseminate their reports.

The assault on press freedom does not begin or end in Ferguson. The robust journalism that America requires has, of course, been undermined by the constant cuts imposed by hedge-fund media moguls. But even where media outlets still try to tell the stories that need to be told, they face threats from government agencies that are supposed to be checked and balanced by a constitutional prohibition on any official action abridging the freedom of the press — or of the related democratic rights to speak, to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Press freedom groups are busy these days, calling out local police forces in communities that deny reporters access to news scenes, challenging state officials who refuse to obey open-records requests and federal officials who have grown increasingly aggressive in their efforts to monitor reporters and to try and force journalists to reveal the names of whistleblowers. “There is an attitude shift that says it’s OK to go after reporters to get information to use in litigation,” explained veteran First Amendment lawyer Theodore Boutrous in a recent interview with the McClatchy Washington Bureau. “That is very dangerous and has a real potential for chilling free speech and free press and reporting on important issues.”

On the very same day that the president was objecting to the bullying of journalists in Ferguson, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press and other journalism groups demanded that the federal government halt legal actions against New York Times reporter James Risen, who has been threatened with prosecution if he does not reveal the names of confidential sources for his groundbreaking 2006 book, State of War. A petition submitted to President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, and signed by more than 100,000 press freedom supporters, urged the administration to abandon a policy of subpoenaing journalists to reveal their sources.

Risen and his allies noted, correctly, that his case is just one of many instances where federal, state and local authorities have pressured journalists with legal threats. “I also know that it’s really not about me. It’s about some basic issues that affect all Americans and all journalists,” Risen explained. “I’m willing to do this for the future of journalism.”

More than the future of journalism is at risk. While every First Amendment freedom is important, Delphine Halgand, the director of the Washington office of Reporters Without Borders makes a vital point when she argues that freedom of the press “is the freedom that allows us to verify the existence of all other freedoms.”

That understanding ought to be the basis for a new movement to defend journalism not just from high-profile and immediate assaults but from what veteran journalist Norman Solomon refers to as the patterns of “fear and intimidation” that have always existed but that have accelerated and extended in the years since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. This project cannot be about Democrats versus Republicans; this cannot be a left-versus-right game of dueling media silos. It must be transpartisan, bringing together citizens across the ideological spectrum to say that, without the free flow of information and open debate, all ideas are diminished. Americans with “Don’t Trust Corporate Media” bumper stickers have to align with Americans with “Don’t Believe the Liberal Media” bumper stickers in a shared recognition that some struggles go beyond politics.

None of this means that we must to pretend to like all journalists, or all media outlets. It is right and necessary to call out journalism that fails democracy. Media criticism, at its best, is not rooted in partisanship, or ideology; it is a demand for the pursuit of truths that someone with economic or political power does not want told. Americans have good reason to be frustrated with media that misses the essential stories of racism and inequality, as well as assaults on privacy and military adventurism. They should be furious with media monopolists who abandon civic and democratic ideals in the pursuit of commercial and entertainment compromises.

That frustration and anger cannot, however, become an excuse for abandoning the defense of journalism. In these times of manipulated media and constant assaults on the people’s right to know, citizens must take up the cause of the journalism that is on the street in Ferguson, that is exposing corporate wrongdoing, that is meeting with whistleblowers in Washington.

What is happening in Ferguson must be condemned, and there must be accountability. Authorities need to explain why journalists have been assaulted and arrested even when, according to the The Intercept’s John Cook, “they had their hands raised in the air and were shouting, ‘Press! Press! Press!'” And journalists need to recognize their circumstances as part of a broader First Amendment struggle, as CNN’s Don Lemon did after he was physically pushed around Monday by police during a live shot from Ferguson. “Now you see why people are so upset here, because we have been here all day,” said Lemon. “We’re on national television. So imagine what they are doing to people when you don’t see on national television, the people who don’t have a voice like we do.”

But the response cannot stop there.

Congress needs to enact a shield law that protects journalists and whistleblowers, recognizing that Congressman Alan Grayson is right when he says, “The Constitution and the First Amendment provide for freedom of speech and of the press. It is completely incongruous to say we have freedom of the press, but the Federal Government can subpoena your sources and put them and you in prison — you, if you don’t comply.” Federal, state and local government must strengthen open meetings and open records laws; recognizing that in a digital age it should be easier and faster (not to mention cheaper) to meet the requests of citizens who want to know what is being done in their name but often without their informed consent — and of the journalists who inquire on their behalf. Resources must be made available so that every law-enforcement agency in every jurisdiction, from the FBI to the sheriff’s department in the most remote county, can train agents, deputies and officers to respect the whole of the Constitution, including the provision for a free press. And the courts must be peopled with jurists who respect the connection between a freedom of the press and all other freedoms; where judges are appointed, nominees must be grilled with regard to their constitutional commitments; where judges are elected, the First Amendment must be an issue.

What is at stake is a free and open society; and it is not enough that the most egregious wrongs have been identified and decried. The culture, the climate, in which those wrongs occur so frequently, must change. It must change because the journalism that goes to places like Ferguson, the gets behind the façade of institutions like the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, that demands accountability from street cops and presidents, is much more than an exercise in information gathering. It is the vital link that gives citizens the information they need to bend the arc of history toward justice. There is no middle ground in this regard. Americans are either going to defend speak-truth-to-power journalism and vibrant democracy — as part of a broad reassertion of First Amendment rights — or they are going to have to settle for propaganda and oligarchy.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

John Nichols is national correspondent for The Nation. A co-founder of the media reform organization Free Press, he is the author of Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America, forthcoming from Nation Books this fall, and co-author with Robert W. McChesney of The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again; Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy; and People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizeness Democracy, published in March 2016 by Nation Books. Follow him on Twitter: @NicholsUprising.
  • submit to reddit