Commentary: Journalism key to sustaining democracy
By Martin G. Reynolds, Editor, Oakland Tribune
COMMENTARY – Chauncey Bailey’s Aug. 2, 2007, killing was a rare occurrence for a journalist working on American soil. The last such death was in 1976 when Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles was killed for investigating sketchy mob-related land deals.
Journalists all over the world increasingly operate on a landscape riddled with violence and intimidation. From July 1, 1992, through Dec. 31, 2008, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports 722 journalists have been killed worldwide, and of those, 72 percent were murdered.
Each year dozens are jailed and a few go missing. Already in 2009 three journalists have been killed — one in Sri Lanka, one in Somalia, and one in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.
For those who say the pen is mightier than the sword, those alarming numbers seem to belie the adage.
You may ask yourself why you should care, especially since the vast majority of these killings happen beyond our borders.
For American journalists, it’s not death we so often face, but a government increasingly resistant to our inquiries and a public often indifferent to our mission. No shield law exists to protect journalists from revealing their sources if compelled to do so by a federal judge. The Chauncey Bailey Project report published today provides a fitting opportunity to discuss the value of journalism to your community and to democracy.
To that end, many have called for our own “Where’s the beef?” campaign, or the journalistic equivalent to the famous “Got Milk?” ads. “Got News?” has a nice ring to it.
Late last year, the Ford Foundation held a round-table at its New York City headquarters to discuss how to address increased violence against journalists and the difficulty gaining the access necessary to report on government and public agencies.
Guests included journalistic heavyweights and middleweights, foreign correspondents, bloggers and news executives from all over the nation and the world. The Tribune was invited because of its participation in The Chauncey Bailey Project.
Some of my colleagues in New York balked at the notion of an ad campaign, maintaining that journalists should not engage in marketing. There’s nothing like the dinosaur sneering at its impending extinction to provide perspective on the direction we ought to go. Head toward the ball of flame, guys. It’s warm!
We live in a marketing-driven society. Anyone trying to distinguish their product in the marketplace understands the need for selling it, explaining it. One person said there needs to be another “teachable moment” like Watergate, when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s work between 1972 and 1976 led to the indictments of dozens of White House and administration officials and the eventual resignation of President Richard Nixon. Bernstein was part of a panel discussion at the New York event.
I wouldn’t be so bold as to imply the potential outcome of the Bailey Project’s reportage is even in the same universe as the work done by Woodward and Bernstein, but it nevertheless provides another teachable moment to remind people why this profession is important to democracy and to the world.
As news organizations big and small cut staff and struggle to redefine themselves in this changing economic environment, there are some real concerns for what will happen to society should hard news reporting fall by the wayside. There also are serious ramifications for correspondents working in hostile locations should large, accountable news organizations fail or simply close foreign bureaus.
As news organizations pull back from hot spots like Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa to cut costs, the coverage of those areas increasingly is left to freelancers in those regions. The problem is, many of those journalists are locals who may work for Internet or small-broadcast outfits but don’t represent news organizations like The New York Times, Washington Post or The Associated Press.
Those larger organizations, should one of their reporters be captured, have institutional clout and can bring significant resources to advocate for the release of a journalist, said former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges, who spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East and Africa. Hedges sat on the panel with Bernstein and New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller. It doesn’t always work, as in the case of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and killed in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2002. But a large news outfit with influence has a far better chance than a lone freelancer.
How this works domestically is also significant. There could be an impact here as more news organizations across the country turn to freelance reporters. Trained, professional reporters like those working on The Chauncey Bailey Project have a difficult-enough time gaining access to crucial documents and sources necessary to be the watchdogs on behalf of the public. They’re able to do it because they are savvy, veteran journalists with years of experience, training and news organizations behind them to publish or air the reports they come up with.
What hope does a less experienced reporter not attached to a news organization have in attaining such documents or having the financial wherewithal to conduct a yearlong investigation?
My point is simple. The Bailey Project is an example of the good that journalism can do. And the outgrowth of the project is a renewed commitment by the Tribune to holding our local government and city agencies accountable so they work to the benefit of Oakland residents. We also must support organizations working to protect journalists around the world.
And to my colleagues, we must do a better job of reminding the public why this work is so important, and how it relates to them and their liberty. As the U.S. news business goes through this difficult time and works to reinvent itself, we can’t lose sight of the need to explain and differentiate ourselves from voices who are part of the conversation but not held to the same journalistic standard. There is a difference between journalism and punditry, a line that separates opinion from fact, and a barrier between speculation and good old-fashioned documented reporting. I was heartened by the passionate responses the project received following its recent reports. Many of you do get it and want it. Do an ink-stained wretch a favor: Tell two friends, and so on and so on.