Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Freedom (and Responsibility) of the Press

I started my career writing for an independent daily newspaper (the Binghamton NY Sun-Bulletin), and those days remain among my favorite time. I loved the atmosphere of the reporters' "bullpen" with writers covering politics and government, police and courts, sports and business. There was an adrenaline rush to chase the story and pull it together in time for the daily deadline. It was an era when there was a competing newspaper in town -- the despised Gannett corporate-owned Binghamton Press (for whom I would also later work - the summer they merged with the S-B).

I loved the underdog spirit of the Sun-Bulletin, the camaraderie in the newsroom. And I especially loved the printing process: working with the page makeup guys who set the lead type into the forms ... we had to be able to read upside down and backwards in order to tell them where to cut a story that ran too long. We joked that our motto was similar to the New York Times, "All the News That Fits We Print." Then the page forms would be converted into huge curved printing plates and mounted on the giant presses. When all the pages were in place, they'd push a button and the rolls of paper would whirr through the complex machine, spilling out completed and folded newspapers at the other end.

Donna-Lane and I went to see the "Pentagon Papers" movie today, and the scenes of the Washington Post newsroom, the linotype operators, and the triumph of printing an important story evoked wonderful memories for both of us. (She has a dueling blog at http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.fr/2018/02/pentagon-papers.html)

This year marks 50 years since I started my professional communications career (at age 17) and 60 since she started hers in Reading MA (at age 16).

The crux of the movie, though, was about press freedom -- whether a newspaper had a constitutional right to print information from leaked classified documents. Daniel Ellsberg, initially vilified as a traitor, came to be regarded as a brave hero for exposing the US government's decades of lies -- starting with Truman, through Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon -- about the war in Vietnam. Because of those lies, tens of thousands of American boys and Vietnamese died for nothing.
One dynamic that the movie brought out was the coziness, especially between Washington journalists and politicians. They all like to party together. So oftentimes important stories get ignored because otherwise the invitations will stop coming.

If the movie is accurate, Post Editor Ben Bradlee took the difficult but necessary position that the story should be published, the truth should be made available, against threats of jail and ruin. A somewhat shakier Katherine Graham, who inherited the newspaper from her father and husband, also made the right decision despite the contrary pressure of her male-only board who seemed only interested in their financial interests, not in freedom of the press and certainly not in the best interests of the country.

I'm afraid as I look around today, there are very few courageous journalists who are willing to write the truth and damn the consequences. Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras come to mind - the ones whom Edward Snowden sought out when he revealed the sinister inner workings of the NSA.

Most editors and journalists today seem more focused on pushing an agenda, whether right or left, and they ignore any evidence that does not support their viewpoint and trumpet the flimsiest of unnamed source innuendo that will help sell papers or generate clicks.

We hear a lot about "fake news," and it's certainly out there. But that does not justify the moves being taken by Facebook, Google, and others to stifle those voices with which they disagree. If we are only spoon-fed the news the government or the megamedia corporations want us to hear, then it's all essentially fake and biased.

I am predisposed to be cynical about almost anything I read or here, regardless of source. I am especially annoyed when reading so-called news which offers no hard facts to support the sensationalized headline. Time permitting, I will call out such journalistic weakness on social media ... and some of you will presume in such a challenge that I am opposed to or supportive of the person about whom the baseless allegations are made. Nothing to do with that person - I just despise shoddy journalism.

Even though we knew the outcome, the Supreme Court decision in favor of a free press was an emotional moment in the movie. Maybe it almost brought me to tears because of the nostalgia for a time when some press still had backbone.

1 comment:

  1. I usually comment on Donna-Lane's blogs, but today, I read yours after hers, so I'll comment on yours. I saw The Post with my daughter the day it came out, here, in France. It brought back many memories. I was already living in France when the Pentagon Papers came out. I remember it. I remember my husband remarking that he didn't think French newspapers would have the guts to do something like that.
    My parents and brothers were newspaper people. I remember going to the Milton Evening Standard, where my mother sold advertising, and the owner took me to see the presses and typesetting and I got my name set.
    Back to the movie, I enjoyed it. Then again, I was sad because of the state of the press and media, in general, today.