H.L. Mencken hit on a hidden truth when he said in essence it is hard to imagine someone is telling the truth when you know in their position you wouldn’t.
How that translates to covering government cuts both ways.
Politicians, especially after seeing the biased reporting which is seemingly all-pervasive in our country today find it hard to trust anyone in the media. As for those of us in the media, after covering seemingly endless scandals from local, state and especially in the federal government it becomes increasingly difficult to look at politicians with anything less than a jaundiced eye.
While both mindsets are flawed, the results on the public can be both similar and wildly different. Ultimately those who have the power of subpoena, taxation and sit in the seats of power – elected by the people to serve us all - can be argued to have a greater responsibility to the electorate. You have but two senators in each state. If they do wrong, then you don’t have much redress for your grievances. If you don’t like a reporter, then you can turn the channel, read a different newspaper or find the information you want – whether it be true or not – on the Internet.
Those of us who gather information, therefore, seem to be mere flotsam in the scheme of things – a fact also reflected by Mencken when he said, “For example, the problem of false news. How does so much of it get into the American newspapers, even the good ones? Is it because journalists as a class are habitual liars?...I don’t think it is. Rather it is because journalists are, in the main, extremely stupid, sentimental and credulous fellows – because nothing is easier than to fool them.”
“It is this vast and militant ignorance, this widespread and fathomless prejudice against intelligence that makes American journalism so pathetically feeble and vulgar and so generally disreputable.”
So as Lisa Abraham, an editor in Columbus Ohio who was jailed for trying to defend the First Amendment in the early 90s, said at The National Press Club Monday night, “Why is it the first place government stops to get information is from a reporter?”
Why indeed? For if journalism is so disreputable, what does it say for those in public life who attempt to prey on the reporters and ultimately use them?
I was humbled to be in the room with Lisa and eight other reporters who, like me, went to jail at some point in their career trying to either protect a confidential source or keep the government from using them as investigators. The assembled group included author Vanessa Leggett, television personality and author Judy Miller, blogger and journalist Josh Wolf who holds the record for serving time – seven and a half months. Television producer Brad Stone, Abraham, print reporter Schuyler Kropf, publisher Libby Averyt and myself made up the bulk of those who spent time detained for our actions.
We met prior to an evening symposium at The National Press Club to get to know one another. Many of us had never met. We are a small club too. Just about a dozen and a half of us are alive and one of us, Jim Taricani, has significant health issues.
I found the meeting prior to the symposium enlightening and ultimately enjoyable in finding I was part of a family I was actually unaware of joining.
The gut wrenching decision to protect a source or your notes, or your videotape is incredibly difficult. It is so easy to give in, and ultimately most do to government officials. While every day many compromise themselves to corrosive threats by the lowest elected official to the highest, many more have stood up to say they will stand by what they have done. Usually you aren’t jailed.
But government intimidation is an 800 lb. gorilla in the room. Ultimately threats, catcalls of a wild and wide variety against the reporter, their abilities, their character and their motives can level most people.
But there is a cure and the nine of us who met this week are supportive of the initial step – a National Shield Law that will protect reporters from testifying and give our sources greater cover.
It is just a first step. Public officials found to be threatening reporters with incarceration or trying other means of coercion should pay a high price for those acts. Information should be more readily available to reporters and the cost of challenging the government when it withholds information should be eliminated.
It would go a long way to cleaning up government from the lowest to the highest miscreants.
Monday I got to take part in a historical meeting of some fascinating and enjoyable people.
My sincere hope is we don’t merely become a historic footnote.