Free the Press

Even though my active involvement in news dissemination is fairly recent, the subject of freedom of the press has figured on my mind for many years. As a news consumer, I am affected by attempts of government and corporations to control the flow of information just as much, if not more, as is the journalist looking to report on a story.

As someone looking to be informed on current events I am dependent on reporters’ ability and legal headroom to pursue critical questions and report on facts and news that may not always please the powers that be. If journalists gets thwarted in their attempts to ask the tough questions I don’t get to know what I need to know to make a full and comprehensive judgement on that story. If I know where and how information is being controlled and withheld, such as a former communist regime’s own newspaper raining praise on the politbureau’s latest pronouncement while conveniently forgetting to mention that the plan is grossly underfunded, or an Arab state TV channel running endless footage of pro-government demonstrations in summer while there are currently no leaves on the trees, I can adjust my assessment and factor in those blind-spots. However, it gets tricky if I am presented with the semblance of a free press, that in fact is truly not. And any attempt to stand between me and the facts I do take personal.

In places like Syria suppression of the press is very much a matter of life or death. Local journalists who have dared to question the judgement of President Bashar al Assad have suddenly disappeared and were later found dead with their eyes gouged out; their bodies sending a simple, yet very unsubtle message. Foreign press is either kept out or closely monitored and restricted in what they are allowed to see. Reality is forced to subject itself not to what is, but what must be.

In America efforts to corral the press are less brutal, but the attempts to bend reality to a predetermined narrative still prevalent and important. Politicians want to project an image of their choosing and not have their true motives questioned or analyzed. Why else would GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich complain about the ‘elite media’ at every opportunity he gets? As dumb as John King’s question about extramarital affairs at the opening of a presidential debate hosted by CNN was, the forcefulness and vitriol of Gingrich’s response (video clip here) amounted to outright intimidation; and it worked. Rather than standing his ground and reminding Gingrich that it was he who had made personal character a campaign issue, King rolled over and moved on as quickly as he could; probably handing Gingrich his victory in the South Carolina primary.  As the saying goes, sausages and politics are best made out of sight; the outcome of both often equally difficult to stomach for the critical mind.

In the wake of 9/11 police forces, in fact every rent-a-cop in a uniform, have developed a habit of restricting access to public space whenever it countervened their perception of security, whether that restriction was reasonably justified or not. A gradual process at first, restrictions have become more pervasive and prevalent, the enforcement of the reprisals more blatant and brutal. On paper, the law still grants access to members of the media behind police lines and in private spaces to report on what is happening at crime scenes, protests, political events and much more. In reality however, in the same manner NYPD has tried to constrict protests to so called ‘free speech zones’, journalists have found themselves more and more pushed away, corralled into ‘press zones’ often outside the line of sight and far away from the actual events, making them reliant on what they hear rather than what they see. I can’t imagine that the founding fathers imagined creating a zoning law when they wrote the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Many reporters have struggled to get support from their management in pushing back on the subject, as corporate owners don’t want to jeopardize their close relationship to police and politicians. As far as news publishers go, no news became increasingly good news. Some publishers have threatened they would fire  journalists, should these choose to legally pursue their harassment at the hand of police. I know of at least two cases, but since the reporters involved don’t want to talk about this in public, I am not going to name their names.

This past Tuesday I attended a very interesting event at the New York Press Club on the subject of police suppression of the press. Over the course of the past ten years, journalists working in New York City have encountered increasing difficulties with gaining access to government officials, public information, crime scenes, and even public protests. Government buildings and the officials working in them, formerly easily accessible, now resemble fortresses, guarded by metal detectors and grumpy security guards with restrictive admission policies. NYPD tried to have the press room at their headquarters, from which journalists filed their reporting on police and crime related stories, removed from the premises, restricting access and the free flow of information between cops and reporters. Whistleblower cops, who shared information of internal misbehavior were locked away in mental institutions, smeared, and persecuted (the Village Voice has an extensive report on such a case here). The harassment and arrest of several credentialed journalists reporting from Occupy Wall Street protests since November 2011 have set an exclamation point on that issue; both implemented reportedly for the security of the reporters involved. No surprise then that the event was heavily oversold and passions were running high in the room.

Led by veteran reporter and former WCBS and WNBC anchor David Diaz, the panel also included Don Mathisen (City Limits magazine barred from interviewing students on a public sidewalk), Carla Murphy (freelance reporter arrested at OWS protest), Robert Stolarik (New York Times photographer harassed and ejected by police from an Occupy protest), Murray Weiss (New York Post and Daily News journalists reporting from inside NYPD headquarters for over 20 years), and Karen Keiser, attorney for the Associated Press.

A detailed account on who said exactly what can be found in my next post here. Meanwhile, I leave you with my key conclusions from that event:

1) A concerted effort of news publishers and reporters is needed to push back against the increasingly suppressive efforts of law enforcement authorities and politicians will bring an end to the tactics and to their ever increasing and forceful use. Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney who was present that evening is currently looking for reporters to join his class action. Siegel mentioned he needs 16 or more cases to establish a pattern of systematic behavior to take NYPD to federal court on their transgressions. Reporters can file their information here with the New York Press Club, who is supporting Mr. Siegel’s efforts.

2) Journalists are angry at what’s been happening. I think the blatant mistreatment of their colleagues at Occupy Wall Street protests has crystalized the issue in many writers’ mind. There was much energy and passion in the group to do something, even though some worry that their employers won’t support their efforts. They will need reinforcement and encouragement to go through with their push back. We need this as much as they do.

3) Remember these immortal words by Edward R. Murrow: “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.” — time we grew some claws.

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