As a journalist, I was surprised — and delighted — that Time magazine had named as its celebrated Person of the Year journalists who had put their lives in danger in their search for truth.
You know one of them, Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was brutally murdered after writing articles criticizing Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. It was the first time a deceased person was so honored by Time.
Two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe OO, are serving seven-year sentences after revealing a mass execution of 10 Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
Another journalist honored by Time is Maria Ressa, whose Rappler news site “has relentlessly covered the brutal drug war of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, including extrajudicial killings.” Rappler faces bogus tax fraud charges and Ressa faces 10 years in prison.
And then there is, in our own country, the staff of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., where four journalists were killed by an angry reader obsessed with the paper over a years-old story.
All of these journalists, said Time, “are representative of a broader fight by countless others around the world...who risk all to tell the story of our time.’‘ So far this year, at least 52 journalists have been killed, some dying in a war zone, some for their work.
The Time honor is especially timely because many in the United States, journalists and others, are concerned about our own press freedom. We watch the tweeting about “fake news” and “enemies of the people,” the effort to punish a CNN reporter, even the feeble suggestion that Saturday Night Live skits should be prosecuted.
Still, it must be noted that the United States is one of the few areas of the world where the press remains free — thanks to the First Amendment to the Constitution and an independent judiciary.
I find it oddly gratifying that journalists are being hailed as heroes.
Polls show the media is held in low regard by the American public, and we in the news business are partly to blame for this skewed view. We are taught, in Journalism 101, that we are not the story and most journalists follow that lesson religiously — almost to a fault. We seldom respond when attacked verbally or in print.
Listen to Joy Mayer, director of the Trusting News Project, which works with community news organizations:
“People assume the worst about journalism. They have all these assumptions that we pay our sources, that when we talk about anonymous sources, we don’t even know who those sources are.
“They’re surprised that we have ethics policies and that we have long discussions about which word to use or which photo to use.”
The public may not understand, but after a lifetime in newsrooms, I was not surprised to hear a reporter for the Capital Gazette, just hours after that horrible shooting, declare: “I can tell you this. We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”
Would have expected nothing less.
Contact Bob Bestler at firstname.lastname@example.org.