When I first began covering the White House, the veteran White House reporter, Helen Thomas, said to me, “Don’t do anyone’s bidding.” She also said a free press was necessary to a democracy. When I would get down about reporting, she would say it was important to stay in the game for the good of the country.
Nothing she said could be more relevant today than her words to me back in the early ’90s. Then, it was just a reporting job, but as I have covered Washington and seen ace reporters cover corruption and the very powerful, her words reverberate inside of me. Many people thought Helen Thomas was a left-winger, but she was as critical of the Clintons as she was of President George Bush.
Wednesday was World Press Freedom Day. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “On World Press Freedom Day, I call for an end to all crackdowns against journalists – because a free press advances peace and justice for all.”
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, the agency that makes World Press Freedom Day happen, says: “The media often play a central role in conflict and crisis situations. Independent, objective, neutral media can help defuse tension, promote dialogue and contain conflicts. Conversely, biased and untrue reporting can exacerbate violence. When misused for propaganda purposes, the media can contribute to inciting hatred and spreading rumors. … sensitive reporting, which requires greater analytical depth and skills to identify the root causes of a conflict unearth myths that may be fueling it; remove mutual misperceptions of the contending parties; explain their respective legitimate concerns; and promote mutual understanding that can help foster reconciliation.”
We certainly saw the role of the press in the reconciliation that has taken place in Rwanda.
This last week, two events underlined the importance of press freedom. After President Trump declined to attend the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, the correspondents did not miss a beat and made the dinner about the First Amendment. Jeff Mason, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, read the First Amendment at the dinner on April 29. It says, “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.”
I was also fortunate to be able to attend a dinner honoring the Washington, D.C., based Reporters Without Borders. U.S. Director Delphine Halgand was the recipient of the 2017 American Hostage Freedom Award. It was a dinner to award journalists who go beyond the call of duty to make sure the press is able to do their jobs. Unfortunately, the award she received was named after James Foley, who was beheaded by ISIS for just doing his job, a job he loved, as a reporter. The foundation says: “Jim envisioned a world that respected the dignity and life of each person, regardless of socioeconomic status, cultural background or nationality. His life demonstrated an uncompromising commitment to the freedom of the press and to advocacy for basic human rights.”
Reporting supports basic human rights. It does not matter if the reporting takes place in conflict areas such as Syria or non-conflict areas such as the White House.
This year, a White House Correspondents’ Association award was given to a reporter who did his research. It was the Edgar A Poe Award, and it went to David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post. The judges said: “David Fahrenthold took the simple question of whether Donald Trump is the philanthropist he claims to be and told a story that showed more about the candidate’s character than any campaign debate or rallies could ever do. His work was steady, thorough and factual – and a display of investigative reporting at its best. His creative use of crowd-sourced information that he continued to gather made the story richer and showed the American people were paying attention.”
Journalists do important things, be it keeping a presidential candidate honest or making sure ISIS is not harming those in areas they control. The Bible’s New Testament gives the best rationale for the First Amendment and the role of journalists in a pluralistic society The Letter of James (2:18) says this: “I by my works will show you my faith.”
What better way to be a journalist than to promote honesty about people in power?
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