Last month in this space, I made you a promise and a prediction.
The promise was that the Society of Professional Journalists would be a leader in fighting restrictions on journalism in covering the war on terrorism.
We have kept that promise, and more. As far as we can tell, no other journalism organization has done as much to defend freedom of information since Sept. 11. You can read some of the details in SPJ Report this month or at www.spj.org.
The prediction, first made in early October, was that the public regard for journalists – which improved greatly in the days of intense coverage in September – was only a temporary bubble of popularity that would burst as we tried to cover a largely secret war without a fully defined enemy and a huge home front.
this is written in mid-November, there have been no recent national polls on news-media performance, but the bubble has burst. Listen to radio talk-show hosts who both mold and reflect public opinion. Don Imus said to the news media on his Oct. 31 program, “We want you people to butt out and stop asking all these questions that are, frankly, none of your damn business.”
Sorry, Don, but it’s the job of journalists to ask the questions. It’s up to the people who are asked the questions to answer as they see fit.
There is no general agreement among journalists about how we should do our jobs in a war like no one has seen before – in which information can be conveyed instantaneously around the globe, the American homeland is under threat and many of the rules, journalistic and governmental, are being made up as we go along.
Individual journalists and news outlets decide for themselves how hard to push for information and how far to go in publishing that information. The leaders of SPJ believe it is our job to defend the individual and collective rights of all journalists, timid or bold, to exercise their First Amendment freedoms.
If those freedoms are to be fully protected, our defense must be firm. Part of SPJ’s role is to speak for our profession as a whole when many individual journalists or media outlets might not feel comfortable doing so for fear of alienating friends, listeners, viewers and readers.
Such caution is understandable in an environment where every American feels some measure of threat and most are willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt when it comes to control of information. But when things go wrong, as they always do in war, the public will want to know why, who’s responsible and how it could have been prevented.
As usual, it will be up to journalists to find out the whole story. Government is secret by nature, and the Justice Department was retreating into the dark corners of secrecy and information control even before Sept. 11. It jailed Texas writer Vanessa Leggett for exercising her First Amendment rights, and ignored its own guidelines in obtaining Associated Press reporter John Solomon’s telephone records. Now, the attorney general openly encourages federal bureaucrats to deny Freedom of Information Act requests.
Some journalists worry little or not at all about such actions, confident that freedom of the press is such a basic tenet of American democracy that a few erosions for the sake of wartime safety pose no threat and are welcome contributions to the national cause. They may be right. They may also be wrong.
In recent years, polls have shown alarming declines in support for, and understanding of, First Amendment freedoms. Now the government is making basic changes in other freedoms that are part of the Bill of Rights.
For example, the new anti-terrorism law allows secret “sneak and peek” searches, in which the government executes a search warrant without notice after showing reasonable cause to believe that notice may seriously jeopardize an investigation.
More ominously for the First Amendment, the law allows the government to keep a permanent legal resident of the United States out of the country if the resident makes a speech that the government considers to be supportive of terrorism.
SPJ has chosen not to involve itself in debates over broader civil liberties, partly because we have our hands full protecting journalism. But we should remember the warning that printer, philosopher and patriot Benjamin Franklin gave in 1759 as the American Revolution was brewing: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Franklin and the other Founding Fathers created a republic in which power derives from the consent of the governed. To give their consent to policy and make their choices of policymakers, the governed must have information. To get that information, they must have a free and vigorous press. That is the proud political pedigree of the principles SPJ is fighting for.
Al Cross is president of SPJ and a political columnist at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.