We saw it then, we see it now: how free press can protect us

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Two recent news items — an obituary about a U.S. Air Force officer and a newspaper column about a jailed Associated Press photographer — have a First Amendment connection that reaches across more than 50 years of U.S. history.

Milo Radulovich, an Air Force reservist caught up in the 1950s McCarthy era, died Nov. 19. Secret charges in 1953 against Radulovich were brought to light by famed CBS newsman Edward R. Morrow and specious “evidence” of disloyalty evaporated when exposed to public scrutiny.

Just a week after Radulovich died, Associated Press president and chief executive Tom Curley wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post about AP photographer Bilal Hussein. Hussein, part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning AP photo team in Iraq, has been jailed there since April 2006. Curley said the U.S. government is now claiming Hussein was a terrorist who infiltrated AP’s staff. But Curley maintains that in reality, “Bilal’s crime was taking photographs the U.S. government does not want its citizens to see.”

What ties the two cases across time from a First Amendment standpoint is — irrespective of eventual guilt or innocence — the role of a free press as a watchdog on government.

Public awareness of that role is too often lost in hyperventilated debates over whether the press is too liberal or conservative, too consolidated, too weak, or too focused on trivial celebrity highjinks. None of those issues is without merit. But the babble and boil obscures appreciation of the role of our free press to examine, expound on and occasionally expose what our government is doing.

In Radulovich’s instance, his military rank was threatened because of the activities of his father, a Serbian immigrant, and his sister. As it happened, his father’s suspicious action was reading a Serbian-language newspaper. His sister was a social activist, but it was her participation in a public protest over a Detroit hotel that refused to admit African-American singer-actor and activist Paul Robeson that authorities cited. Hardly the stuff of treason. Still, two Air Force officers showed up in August 1953 at Radulovich’s Michigan home and told him he was to forfeit his rank, pay and benefits and to appear at a hearing as a danger to national security.

Murrow featured the Radulovich case in an Oct. 23 broadcast of the ground-breaking TV program “See It Now.” A month later, the reservist was exonerated. In 1998, the State Bar of Michigan honored the telecast, saying, “It is generally believed that the program was the beginning of the end for the McCarthy era.”

Curley’s column about Hussein has echoes of the earlier case. He wrote that “every claim we’ve checked out has proved to be false, overblown or microscopic in significance.” A column or television program is neither evidence nor proof, but Curley publicly raises issues of fairness, fair trial and secret prosecution. While the Bill of Rights is supposed to prevent such procedures from being employed by the U.S. government, it is the First Amendment’s provision for a news media outside the control of government officials that is the ultimate protection against Star Chamber tactics.

At least one news report about Radulovich’s death quoted his attorney in 1953 as saying his “only chance” was to “get public opinion on his side.” The Detroit News did a series of stories that led to Murrow’s program, which brought more than 12,000 letters to CBS — most from people outraged about the Air Force proceedings.

Whether or not Curley and others will raise the same public hue and cry about the Hussein case remains to be seen. Public opinion in wartime, we have seen repeatedly in our history, tends to favor the government and support its actions.

But we already know, whether it’s the 20th or 21st century, that the American public is best served when the government is held to account in public rather than being able to operate, and perhaps convict, behind closed doors.

The First Amendment protection for a free press also preserves an independent voice in favor of a fair system fairly applied, with the public presence to hold government accountable for its actions. And that voice is, on occasion, all that stands between us and a government juggernaut that can take away our liberty, career or reputation.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.