After several years of near-constant encroachment on our ability to gather news, might we be seeing the first signs of media solidarity?
It seems that the sheer volume of attacks on the press is engendering – finally – a willingness to work together to provide a counter to the endless barrage of press-bashing, and to stand up to the antics of government despots at all level who cynically foment hatred for the press while pretending to care about freedom.
Such grandstanding leads inevitably to greater control of information, as emboldened leaders seek advantages by manipulating media coverage. By tolerating such treatment, the press aids and abets the effort. In the past few days, though, I see hopeful signs that the press is regaining its voice.
Exhibit A: SPJ joined a coalition of the nation’s leading news organizations in a legal brief supporting The Sun in its lawsuit against Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., contending the governor’s ban on two Sun journalists was an act “characteristic of repressive regimes.”
The brief was filed in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., by lawyers representing the New York Times Co., The Washington Post, the Associated Press, Time Inc., CNN, the E.W. Scripps Co. and Advance Publications Inc. It is brilliant in its clarity and inspiring in its mission: to stand up to a tin-pot despot in need of a timeout.
Ehrlich, you may recall, has for six months now forbidden state employees from speaking with Sun columnist Michael Olesker and Maryland political editor David Nitkin. The ban was imposed after Nitkin disclosed a state proposal to sell 836 acres of preserved forestland in St. Mary’s County to Willard Hackerman, a politically connected construction company owner, in a deal that could have netted him millions of dollars in tax breaks.
The governor – who has yet to cite a single factual problem with the reporting so far as I can tell – told a university class in December that the Sun engaged in “misstatements of fact” and “stories that are invented,” yet mentioned none specifically, instead railing about the paper’s editorial page. At the risk of joining Olesker and Nitkin on the enemies list, shall I point out the difference between editorials and reportage?
There is certainly nothing new about a governor, or a president, or a school board member, trying to control the news. But a gag order on an entire branch of government aimed at two journalists punishes the duo for the content of their speech in ways that smack of, well, “repressive regimes,” to borrow a phrase.
“The First Amendment is designed to protect the press and the public against governmental attempts to restrict speech disapproved of by those in power,” the brief said. “Yet the Governor’s order, by his own admission, seeks to do precisely that: He seeks to coerce journalists into providing coverage that is pleasing to him on pain of being subject to an official boycott if they do not.”
Exactly. And that is why SPJ, and the many other journalism organizations rallying to the cause, are engaged in a noble fight. With governments at all levels increasingly emboldened to manage the news, we must stand together to reveal authoritarian press tactics every single time they occur.
For far too long, journalists have watched governments large and small push them out, micromanage coverage, gag public employees and flat-out lie. And with each encroachment has come more.
Look at President Bush’s Social Security road show for the latest example of what we are letting our leaders get away with. The “town hall meetings” certainly make a mockery of the term: In April, as public support for reform plummeted, the White House eliminated any pretense that the events are open to the public, instead making it clear that the events are “invitation-only.”
When citizens attempted to attend a Social Security event in March — before the invitation-only rule — a functionary who might have been posing illegally as a Secret Service agent forced three people from the venue in Denver, an action now under investigation by federal authorities.
“The Denver Three” were picked out of the crowd when a Republican Party staffer spotted a “No more blood for oil” bumper sticker on their car.
The three — Karen Bauer, Leslie Weise and Alex Young — say they did nothing to warrant being thrown out and were merely interested in seeing the president speak.
In Fargo, N.D., 42 citizens found themselves on a list of North Dakotans “banned” from a February Bush rally days before the event after the list reportedly was found in boxes of tickets for distribution. It included two high school students, a librarian, a Democratic campaign manager and several university professors — the majority of whom had connections to a local group called Democracy for America.
In each case, media coverage was local and a day long in duration. The assembled media just shrugged, chalked it up to another day of work and trudged home.
Where is the outrage? Tax-payer-funded events that are invitation-only? Enemy lists? Sitting governors who make press policy based on tantrums?
It is ironic, but it may just be true: we will regain the public’s confidence and trust only by being absolutely steadfast in our role, even as our critics lambaste us for alleged bias. If our bias is for telling truth to people in power, we have nothing to fear from the citizenry, which is smart enough to see such heavy-handed tactics as the stuff of banana republics.
Charles Davis, co-chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee, is an associate professor and executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at University of Missouri School of Journalism.