21 April 2011

The Value (and Cost) of a Free Press

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.  - United States Constitution, First Amendment
Why the guarantee of an unfettered press?  Simply put, without it we would live in a society forced to rely exclusively on the word of those in authority about anything that happens out of our own field of sight.  You cannot have a free society without a free press.  Not "aren't likely to" but cannot.  If you can't fully understand how this works, I invite you to study societies around the world and throughout history where the only circulated news has been controlled by the government.  Free press is the cornerstone of a free society, for it is our only guarantee that even if a cabal of like-minded people consolidate positions of authority in all government positions, there will be a non-government check on their activities.  When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the story of Watergate, they created a landmark event not only in journalism, but in democracy.  Their expose of the bungled burglary showed the American people the truth about the Nixon administration and several of its key members.  Without Woodward and Bernstein's dogged work, the cover-up may well have succeeded and we would have been denied the truth about our presidency.

The men who valued a free society so much they brought down a president.
As an aside, it's worth noting that ever since Watergate, it seems every beat reporter and news commentator has been on a quest for their own Watergate.  That passion is commendable and even desirable, but unfortunately it has led to the current generation of sensationalism-centric media coverage.  The suffix, "-gate" has become ubiquitous, attached to the buzzword title of any scandal.  Most egregiously, too many of our talking heads are so caught up "telling it like it is" (a phrase I despise) that they've forgotten to ask questions.  Say what you will about Jon Stewart being "merely" a comedian, but The Daily Show does more legwork and homework than most of our "legitimate" news channels, and Stewart--through satire and sometimes salty language--is one of the finest interviewers of this generation.  He has, time and again, sat across the desk from people from all ranges of the political spectrum and cordially put to them a battery of questions meant to help us at home make sense of, or see through, their rhetoric.  I don't deny that Stewart does his fair share of sermonizing, but he does something many of his peers forget to do: he asks questions.  We, the audience, are left to determine whether the answers he gets satisfy us.

Liberal or not, Jon Stewart isn't above busting the president's chops.
There's a whole other level of commitment to the freedom of the press than we see from Stewart or most of the folks that sit behind desks on camera for a living.  Some are so committed to finding out what's really happening in our world that they literally go where the story is, even if the story is in the most hazardous places on Earth.  Embedded reporters may at times be a nuisance to those they're covering and occasionally there are times when they've made public information that crosses into an area of safety and security concerns.  Despite those misgivings, there is no denying that the lion's share of our understanding of what is actually happening depends on their work.  Without these people on the front lines, we would be reliant upon sanitized press releases to tell us what's really taking place in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya.

Yesterday, 20 April 2011, we lost several of these courageous reporters in Libya.  Among them was Tim Hetherington, who collaborated with Sebastian Junger to film the recent documentary Restrepo.  That film followed a squadron of the U.S. military in the most volatile area of Afghanistan, showcasing the impossible nature of their mission, and the courage of the men in uniform charged with the responsibility of performing under unimaginable conditions.  Hetherington and Junger's footage is astounding, from the touching and candid on-camera interviews to the jaw-dropping coverage of being under attack.  That they managed to film at all under fire is impressive, but their cinematography rarely falters.  We are able to follow everything as it happens.  The brave soldiers there deserved to have their story told, and it is entirely thanks to Hetherington and Junger that it was.

Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington with the Restrepo squadron.
In the last day I have read some incredibly insensitive comments about Hetherington's death.  "Swim with sharks, you're gonna get bit," one online poster had to say.  I can understand that the average person doesn't value his principles so much he's willing to risk his life on a regular basis for them, but how have we reached the point that people would devalue someone whose convictions were that deep?  This isn't a cast member from Jackass maimed in a frivolous stunt gone wrong.  This is a man who so thoroughly valued not sensationalism or ratings, but the very nature of a free press--ergo, a free society--that he was willing to die to ensure that we had access to information we otherwise would not have had.  If you don't recognize Tim Hetherington as heroic, then you've taken a free society for granted.

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