Dude, Where's My Freedom of the Press?
Column by Travis Irvine.
Exclusive to STR
These are the times that try journalists’ souls. While Thomas Paine was the American patriot who proved the power of the press, it was arguably the penman of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, who truly understood and fought for freedom of the press. “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press,” Jefferson once wrote. “And that cannot be limited without being lost.” He also wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” No wonder a statue of ol’ Tommy J. stands in front of my alma mater, the Columbia University School of Journalism – he is a huge reason journalists are here.
The events of the past few months in regards to freedom of the press in the U.S. – as well as abroad – have been harrowing for journalists and friends of the press alike. The recent, and highly unusual, detainment of David Miranda (the partner of The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald), in addition to the subsequent “destruction” of The Guardian’s classified NSA files, are true signs of the times. They are not, I hope, signs of things to come. However, though I am usually your typical happy-go-lucky optimist, even I have to admit that things do not look good.
For example, take a recent threat to the press from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who proposed an amendment to a media shield law that would only protect paid journalists for what they say or write. This would effectively, as the Senator from California must surely know, remove press protections for the rising amount of citizen journalists and bloggers who, thanks to the Interwebs, can take photos/videos, write blogs about events and post them without getting fat paychecks from news corporations. These citizen journalists provided a bulk of the coverage during the Occupy Wall Street movement, and – as Feinstein must also surely know – were a huge pain in the ass to the establishment: not only to “reputable” news sources, but to police engaging in abusive and abrasive “crowd control” tactics.
Add to this a slew of other recent troubling revelations, like how the CIA used to gather records on Noam Chomsky, a longtime and relatively harmless critic of U.S. foreign policy. Or that, according to Edward Snowden, the U.S. government targeted journalists who were critical of the government in the months after 9/11. Or that the Secret Service was investigating Adam Schwartz, the co-founder of Reddit and free information activist, before he killed himself in January. Or that the Department of Justice can now prosecute any journalist it wants thanks to the recent ruling in the James Risen case. Or that the recently deceased Buzzfeed journalist, Michael Hastings, was doing a story on the new head of the CIA, John Brennan, when the journalist’s car hit a tree in L.A. and exploded. While nothing has been proven yet about Hasting’s death, when a journalist investigates the head of the CIA and his car blows up, it’s enough to make you think, “Hmmm,” but also, “Shit!” It’s quite the contrast from the last time a journalist did a story on the head of the CIA and she ended up sleeping with him. Hubba hubba! Now that’s freedom of the press, baby.
No wonder a former chief counsel to The New York Times said Obama is worse for press freedom than former President Richard Nixon. Or for that matter, George W. Bush. One of my most vivid memories from my time at Columbia Journalism School was when, to celebrate our approaching graduation, the school treated us to a cruise around Manhattan – down the East River, past Wall Street, around the Statue of Liberty and back. Apparently it’s been a tradition in the school for some time. But during that particular evening in May 2012, the waterway between Lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn was blocked off by the police because President Obama was visiting Wall Street. Due to these security procedures, our cruise ship had to turn around, and the Columbia Journalism School Class of 2012 did not get to see the Statue of Liberty. Though I was plenty hopped up on a healthy amount of libations at the time, the symbolism of that moment was not and never will be lost on me.
Freedom of the press is an essential part of our free society to ensure that we have an educated and informed electorate. Media outlets, however big or small, are the multifaceted voice box of the populace, and to spy on them, limit them or attempt to intimidate them is a disservice to the governed, especially when the governed need pertinent information to understand their government. If the Western governments of the world are not going to allow journalists to freely inform the public, then maybe it’s time for us to remember a few more of Jefferson’s words, that “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.” Hubba hubba! Now that’s freedom of the press, baby.