World Press Freedom Day
Today, May 3rd, is World Press Freedom Day. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a report last December stating that the number of journalists imprisoned for their work is at a historic high of 262. The group also stated that this number could be low as their methodology requires a clear link between journalism and jailing, and only accounts for journalists in government custody, not those who have disappeared or are captives of nonstate groups.
Interestingly, over half of the imprisonments belong to just three countries and over a quarter belongs to just one. Turkey (73), Egypt (20), and my current home of China (41) are the worst offenders. My previous home of Vietnam also made the list with 10.
Freedom of the press is actually covered under article 19 of the UN’s declaration of human rights (the right to freedom of opinion and expression). Nations that believe in this right should be doing everything within their power to protect it. However, that same CPJ report states that:
“Far from isolating repressive countries for their authoritarian behavior, the United States, in particular, has cozied up to strongmen such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Chinese President Xi Jinping. At the same time, President Donald Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric, fixation on Islamic extremism, and insistence on labeling critical media “fake news” serves to reinforce the framework of accusations and legal charges that allow such leaders to preside over the jailing of journalists.”
Trump’s war on the free press goes further than just reinforcing a framework. Trump has repeatedly called for an examination of U.S. liable laws, the Department of Justice has just removed language about the freedom of the press from its guidebook for U.S. attorneys, the and Department of Homeland Security had begun compiling a database of journalists and media influencers. Trump even skipped the annual White House Correspondent’s Dinner which features a comedian roasting everyone in the room, media, and politics simply to celebrate the fact that they have the right to do so. Instead he held a campaign rally in Michigan where several supports seriously stated that the U.S. should “lock up the free press.”
Journalism is awesome! Journalism allows a free flow of information, keeps citizens informed, and even holds powerful, seemingly untouchable people and organizations accountable. In honor of World Press Freedom Day, and in light of this huge attack on the free press, I decided to list a few stories that highlight just how awesome journalism is.
The Boston Globe (Spotlight) and the Catholic Church
The most well-known example of journalism holding the powerful accountable is depicted in the academy award winning film Spotlight. The film depicts the true story of an investigative team at the Boston Globe uncovering a massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the catholic church. The team consisted of Walter “Robby” Robinson, Sacha Pfeiffer, Michael Rezendes, Matt Carroll, Ben Bradlee Jr., and Marty Baron.
The team Initially believed that they were investigating the cover up of one child molesting priest. Through talking to survivors the team soon discovered that they were actually tracking thirteen priests. They would eventually learn through a former priest that it is likely that six percent of priests are pedophiles. With fifteen hundred priests in Boston, this would translate to ninety priests. Working backwards from church records the team put together a list of eighty-seven priests and continued investigating further.
The team eventually uncovers documents that confirm the cardinal in charge of the Boston archdiocese, Bernard Law, was made aware of the problem but ignored it. After the Globe wins a court case unsealing documents from lawsuits that the church had settled, they possessed enough evidence to expose the pedophilia problem and the church’s attempts to cover it up.
Publishing the story had an immediate effect with more and more victims calling the paper to come forward with their story. The report unleashed a wave of reporting from other news agencies and soon a national crisis was revealed when the scandal spread to over one hundred different cities across the US. It further grew into an international crisis with victims coming forward in hundreds of cities across the globe. Places like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and all over Europe all had victims speaking up.
The state legislature quickly passed laws making it mandatory for the church to report sexual abuse. The Boston archdiocese had to pay $95 million to the victims. The amount was so large that the archdiocese had sell a bunch of property, including the Cardinal’s ornate residence, in order to afford it. The church began training officials to recognize and report abuse, adopting a policy of zero-tolerance. Finally, Cardinal Law resigned amidst the scandal and the cover-ups.
Deservedly, the Boston Globe would go on to receive a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
Victims are still coming forward with stories of molestation dating back thirty years. Due to some fantastic reporting, many venerable children around the globe are hopefully better protected from would-be abusers of power.
One of the reporters who broke the story, Michael Rezendes, would go one to write on the importance of investigative journalism, stating:
“The far-reaching impact of the investigation has yielded invaluable lessons. One is the importance of investigative reporting in holding powerful institutions and individuals accountable for their actions — even those that profess to be paragons of probity and morality.”
If you haven’t seen this film, do yourself a favour and give it a watch.
The New York Times and Bill O’Reilly
This fantastic report about how New York Times reporter Emily Steele toppled TV Titan Bill O’Reilly is definitely worth a read. Steele and another reporter, Michael Schmidt, investigated sexual harassment allegations against the former Fox News host, leading to his downfall. Her work gave many the courage to speak up, helped fuel what would become the #MeToo Movement, and also earned the NYTimes a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
The story is even more impressive since O’Reilly had previous threatened Steele regarding another story on him that she had reported. In an on-the-record-call he stated, “I’m coming after you with everything I’ve got. You can take it as a threat.” In spite of this, Steele still decided to investigate the sexual harassment claims.
Gathering evidence proved difficult because confidentiality agreements signed by the women forced them to remain silent. Interestingly, Steele actually turned to Spotlight for inspiration to overcome this barrier. The movie gave her a blueprint to follow. She realized that this type of behaviour doesn’t usually appear in someone spontaneously, but has been developing their whole career. If there were the women who had signed the confidentiality agreements, there were likely other who had not. This led her to Wendy Walsh, one of the few O’Reilly accusers who had not signed a confidentiality agreement.
When Wendy Walsh agreed to break her silence she was the only woman on record for Steele’s article. With this ammunition the Times was able to publish a report that O’Reilly had settled five previously undisclosed sexual harassment lawsuits and had one woman – Walsh – publicly speaking out against him. Within one week he lost over half his advertisers (nearly sixty companies) and was soon let go by the network. An investigation by the free press rendered an extremely powerful man accountable.
I think this is such a cool story. A journalist threatened by the target of her investigation still perseveres to dismantle one of the most powerful men in television. How awesome is that? I also like how CBC’s Rosemary Barton described Steele.
“The striking part about this 34-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner is that for all the toughness she had to have to take down Bill O’Reilly, she also has a kindness and a gentleness that allowed women to reveal embarrassing truths to her.”
The Washington Post and Watergate
The story that inspired a generation of journalists; of course this was going to be here. Watergate, with its huge parallels to today’s politics, is a huge reminder why a free press is so important to keep those in power in check.
(Seriously, the parallels are crazy: Nixon even had an “enemies list” that included politicians, journalists, and actors, who were harassed by the administration though tax audits and legal action. He also fired the special council investigating him which ultimately proved to be his downfall)
If, like me, you weren’t alive during the Watergate era, here’s the story:
In 1972 five burglars were arrested while breaking into the Democrats office in the Watergate hotel in an attempt to bug it. This caught the attention Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, two Washington Post reporters, who began further investigation. They discovered and reported that one of Nixon’s security aides was among those arrested, and that another man was on the payrole of Nixon’s reelection committee. (In private, this lead to Nixon’s chief of staff discussing how to use the CIA to get the FBI to back off from the burglary investigation)
The reporters eventually found a link between the burglary and Nixon’s campaign funds when they discovered that a cheque for $25,000 for Nixon’s reelection campaign had been deposited into one of the burglar’s bank accounts. They went on to learn of a secret fund used to gather information on the democrats. Nixon’s aides had been running a campaign of political spying and sabotage in an effort to help reelect Nixon.
Nixon did win reelection that year. But the story was now growing, resulting in four of Nixon’s top aides loosing their jobs and blowing the story into a full national scandal. From here it was subject to two official investigations that eventually led to Nixon’s resignation.
And it was all started by two young journalists doing their job and investigating those in power.
Seriously, without Bernstein and Woodward pushing for truth, there is a big chance that the story could have just been a small blip in Nixon’s presidency. Most of the rest of the media failed to grasps importance of the scandal, instead concentrating on the 1972 election. Many publications ignored Bernstein’s and Woodward’s reports, some even running discrediting articles against their stories. The White Host also relentlessly attacked the Washington Posts coverage (sound familiar?).
It wasn’t until the scandal was apparent nationwide that most publications began giving it the coverage it deserved. The Washington Post would go on to win – you guessed it – a Pultizer Prize for Public Service. (Woodward was actually instrumental in the Post winning two Pulitzers, the second for covering 9/11)
Thank you journalists
So yeah, three stories detailing how important investigative journalism is. Thing is, this type of journalism is extremely valuable and necessary, but it isn’t cheap – the Spotlight example had five full time reporters working on one story for a half year. Most people from my generation, myself included, get all our news for free. Often it’s the articles that show up on our facebook feed, sometimes it’s whatever is on the first page of google. But I think it is important to pay for news from outlets that value investigative journalism. It’s important to support this valuable work.
As I write this, I haven’t subscribed to any of these organizations myself. While doing research for this, two news sites actually locked me out for viewing too many free articles. But I’m beginning to realize how important this kind of work is and so I think I will begin to pay for some of my news. I just have to choose between the New York Times and the Washington Post (I like really like both of their content).
Finally, on this World Press Freedom Day I just wanted to say “Thank You” to all the great journalist for all the good work you do in keeping the powerful accountable.