This is a terrible time for journalists.
Just last week, the world watched in horror as James Foley, a freelance photojournalist for GlobalPost and Agence France-Presse, was beheaded by a jihadist from the Islamic State. The disturbing video suggests that the perpetrators intend to target more journalists if their demands are not met.
There is something particularly chilling about murdering those seeking only to inform, about reporters around the world having to fear for their lives. But right here at home, we’re seeing a less lethal, yet still deeply troubling threat to journalism.
In recent days, all eyes have been on Ferguson, Mo., where the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown on Aug. 9 touched off citywide protests and a national debate over racism, equal justice and police brutality. But if local Ferguson police had their way, there would be little or no coverage at all.
Since the killing, Ferguson law enforcement have arrested or detained at least 10 journalists , and tried to silence many more. They’ve escalated violence against the media, shooting tear gas canisters at reporters and dismantling cameras and lighting equipment. The Post’s Wesley Lowery was slammed into a soda machine and arrested after disregarding an illegal order to stop filming. “Don’t resist,” one cop threatened an Al Jazeera reporter. “I’ll bust your head right here.”
Some media critics have argued that journalists are behaving irresponsibly, that instead of providing unbiased coverage, they risk becoming the story. But it is a story — an essential one — when our supposedly free press is prevented from doing its vital duty.
President Obama was absolutely right in his Aug. 18 remarks on Ferguson: “Our constitutional rights . . . to report in the press must be vigilantly safeguarded.” And yet, in areas outside of Missouri, White House actions regarding press freedom have been at best, unconscionable and at worst, unconstitutional.
Take the case of James Risen. A New York Times reporter, Risen is being subpoenaed to testify in the Justice Department case against one of his alleged sources. He has opted for jail time rather than “giv[ing] up everything I believe in.” Risen knows that journalists cannot fulfill their duty to investigate the government and hold elected officials accountable if they cannot guarantee the anonymity of their sources.
The Espionage Act with which Risen is being threatened has become one of the Obama administration’s favorite tools: It has charged more U.S. whistleblowers under the World War I-era law than all other presidents combined. And, as I’ve written previously, this administration has waged an aggressive campaign against reporters and those who leak information to them.
There is an indelible connection between what is happening in Ferguson and what is happening in Washington. In both places, and in cities all over the country, journalists — the very watchdogs of our freedom — are being intimidated and suppressed. This is a dangerous road to travel. Journalism is not a footnote to politics. It is not an addendum to history. A free press is the very lifeblood of democratic representation.
It was the muckraking work of Upton Sinclair that alerted the nation to the scourge of the Chicago meatpacking industry. It was the meticulous reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that curbed a president’s abuse of power. It was the graphic images of fire hoses and dogs at the Children’s Crusade that breathed new life into the Civil Rights Movement. As John Lewis said, “If it hadn’t been for the American media . . . a free press, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.” It is the intrepid reporters who questioned the CIA’s tactics, who unveiled the National Security Agency’s wiretapping program, who challenge the decisions of the powerful and, yes, shine an unwavering light on Ferguson.
As my Nation colleague John Nichols wrote, “When journalists are harassed, intimidated, threatened and detained, the basic premise of democracy — that the great mass of people, armed with information and perspective, and empowered to act upon it, will set right that which is made wrong by oligarchs — is assaulted.”
Recent events are stirring people into action. In Risen’s defense, a coalition of media groups submitted a petition with 100,000 signatures to the Justice Department.
Americans see the sinister alternative to a free press in other countries: from Al Jazeera correspondents arrested in Egypt, to dissident Web sites gutted in Russia, to Mexican journalists abducted and murdered by drug cartels, to Russian journalists detained in Ukraine. While U.S. officials condemn such assaults abroad — and rightfully so — it’s time they show an equal commitment to our own vital principle of a free media.