Editorial: Press freedoms — you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone

Published: 6/25/2018 1:58:32 PM

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of guest editorials running between now and July 4, our nation’s Independence Day. These essays were solicited by the Franklin County League of Women Voters for The Recorder from several especially knowledgeable and experienced members of our community, about issues as important to America today as when our country was born with our forefather’s Declaration of Independence nearly 250 years ago.

One of the most disturbing scenes in “The Fourth Estate,” the Showtime documentary series that follows The New York Times as it covers the first year of the Trump presidency, is at a rally in Arizona, when the president begins to criticize the media. As he speaks, the camera pans to the back of the hall, where reporters sit at tables, cordoned off behind metal barriers, tapping away on their laptops. As some crowd members turn around to jeer at the reporters with cries of “Fake! Fake!,” things start to get tense. One reporter hastily wraps up his laptop cords and starts to make an exit. It’s a visceral scene that, regardless of one’s politics, should give us all pause.

Whether you think this is the best or worst of times for journalism, it’s hard to imagine how our democracy could have endured and evolved over the past two centuries without the press freedoms established under the First Amendment, and the watchdog role of the press. The founders recognized that the powerful must be accountable, in the phrase from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, “the freedom of the Press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic Governments.”

Or, as The Washington Post puts it a little more simply in its tagline: “Democracy dies in darkness.” If journalists — who are people, like everyone else – don’t keep the lights on, who will? The free flow of fact-based information and citizen access to the inner workings of government, whether it’s the White House or a local school committee, is crucial for civic decision making, and the more of it, the better. You may not like what’s in the news, but it’s important for all of us to acknowledge and defend the journalist’s right to cover it.

Around the world, press freedoms are either non-existent or under siege, and journalists work under threats of prison, kidnappings and murder. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that, as of last December, 262 journalists were in prison as a result of their work. In Mexico alone, the International Press Institute reports that at least 80 reporters have been killed since 2006 while covering the nation’s war on drug cartels.

Economic and tech forces also threaten the health of the press. Print news circulation has been declining for years, and money that might have once funded journalism has shifted to Google and Facebook, which now consume about 75 percent of digital advertising dollars.

As the scene at the Trump rally shows, when a president says the press is an enemy of the state, journalism becomes a risky business. There’s a meme making the rounds on social media: “Journalism. It’s a tough job with insane pressure and pretty crappy pay. On the other hand, everyone hates you.”

But in its everyday exercise of one of our most important rights, it’s one of the most important jobs in a democracy, not just by the New York Times reporter, but even by a recent college grad at the smallest hometown paper. So the next time you see a reporter at a public meeting or event, say hello, and if you’re really feeling generous, say thanks.

This essay was written by BJ Roche, a senior lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Department of Journalism. She was named New England Journalism Educator of the Year by the New England Newspaper and Publishers Association in 2017.


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