Think press freedom is secure? Think again

Tuesday, October 7, 2003

We take an awful lot for granted in this country.

Down deep, of course, we know we should appreciate the people and things that enrich our lives. Instead, we often overlook them. Sometimes we even find them irritating. Like our spouses. Or the U.S. Postal Service. Or Barry Manilow.

But there’s nothing we take more for granted than newspapers and the press freedoms that make them possible. We complain about what newspapers cover and what they don’t. We complain about how reporters report and editors edit. We even complain about the ink that stains our hands.

What, though, would we do without newspapers? Even in this age of television and the Internet, no better source exists for comprehensive coverage of international, national and local news. No other source so thoroughly covers our schools and our children’s successes in the classroom and on the athletic field. No other source provides the personal news about births, deaths and everything in between that makes us a community.

During this National Newspaper Week, we should pause to reflect about what newspapers and press freedoms mean to us. As we do, we should recognize these freedoms are under almost constant attack from those who believe — literally — that no news is good news.

The fiercest battles for press freedom are being fought in our nation’s courtrooms. Not all that long ago, the openness of our judicial system seemed beyond dispute. What happened in our courts was open for all to see. Everything judges and juries did was open to public scrutiny.

That’s no longer true. Judges throughout the country are increasingly seating anonymous juries, not to protect jurors from criminal defendants but to protect them from the press. Judges routinely bar attorneys, parties and witnesses from speaking with reporters. Some judges even go so far as to prohibit newspapers from publishing photos of certain witnesses.

One of the more egregious infringements on press freedom occurred this summer in criminal proceedings involving three former Enron executives. First the judge closed three routine pretrial hearings. Then he refused to release the transcripts of those hearings to the press. His reason? “There are matters,” he said, “that do not need to be discussed in public in ways that embarrass or humiliate the government or the defense and particularly the court.”

A judge’s embarrassment never before has been reason to close a courtroom. But at least the Enron judge stated his reason. Newspaper reporters covering a civil suit in Essex County, N.J., still are trying to learn why the judge hearing that case has sealed the court file.

In the case, former Prudential employees allege the insurer rigged a supposedly neutral arbitration system to prevent them from obtaining fair settlements in employment disputes. Despite the public interest in the case, the judge has closed all hearings and denied reporters access to the court file.

Several newspapers recently challenged the judge’s closure orders. Perhaps not surprisingly, the judge rejected those challenges. In unprecedented moves, however, he sealed his opinion denying the newspapers’ request for access and then prohibited the newspapers’ lawyers from showing the opinion to their clients. So much for our judicial system’s presumption of openness.

Unfortunately, the attacks on press freedom extend beyond our courts. Federal agencies routinely delay or deny freedom of information requests. Prosecutors freely subpoena reporters to learn the identity of confidential sources and obtain other unpublished information. The Justice Department has more than once in recent months threatened journalists with criminal charges.

While some cheer these efforts as necessary to reign in an overzealous news media, any loss of press freedom makes losers of us all. “A free press can of course be good or bad,” French philosopher Albert Camus wrote in 1960, “but, most certainly, without freedom it will never be anything but bad.”

Admittedly, our nation’s newspapers are far from perfect. Sloppy reporting, plagiarism and other unethical behavior are all too common. Even with their flaws, however, newspapers possess an indispensable ability to inform, entertain and provoke.

The attacks on press freedom threaten that ability. As they resist these attacks, newspapers need our support, and we should be eager to offer it. Yes, newspapers sometimes make us roll our eyes in disbelief. They sometimes make us shake our head in disgust. They sometimes make us clench our fists in anger.

But they also make us laugh. And cry. And wonder. And challenge. And, almost always, they make us think.

And that, I believe, is something we should never take for granted.

This commentary was originally written for the Dixon (Ill.) Telegraph as part of the Telegraph‘s celebration of National Newspaper Week. Reprinted by permission.

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