On Native Ground
A FREE NATION NEEDS A FREE PRESS
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The war now being waged by the Right on the First Amendment and its principles of a free press, freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of association is hardly a new one.
Go back five decades, to the Red Scare of the 1950s, and the words seem almost the same - all one has to do is substitute "terrorism" and "al-Qaida" for "communism" and "the Soviet Union."
The award-winning journalist and commentator Elmer Davis couldn't foresee that the hysteria of the McCarthy era would be repeated again a half-century later. But the words that Davis wrote in 1953 have resonance in our present crisis.
"The first and great commandment is, Don't let them scare you. For the men who are trying to do this to us are scared themselves. They are afraid that what they think will not stand critical examination; they are afraid that the principles on which this republic was founded and has been conducted are wrong... .
"The frightened men who are trying to frighten us, because they have no faith in our country, are wrong; and even wronger are the smart men who are trying to use the frightened men for their own ends.
"The United States has worked; the principles of freedom on which it was founded - free thought as well as political liberty - have worked. This is the faith once delivered to the fathers - the faith for which they were willing to fight and, if necessary, die, but for which they fought and won.
"Those men, whose heirs and beneficiaries we are, risked, and knew they were risking, their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. We shall have no heirs and beneficiaries, and shall deserve to have none, if we lack the courage to preserve the heritage they won for us."
These are the stakes that we are fighting for. And you bet I have a dog in this fight.
I've been in journalism in one form or another for my entire adult life. When I broke into the field, in the afterglow of Watergate, journalism was more than a job. It was a public service where you could make a real difference in peoples' lives. Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Go after the bad guys. Stand up for truth and justice and have fun doing it.
I believed that then, and in spite of the many ups and downs in my professional career, I still believe that. When the press is on its game, big things can happen.
And that's why I am willing to fight those people who would muzzle us, who equate our work with treason, who believe the only journalism that should exist is puffery for the ruling regime.
Ever since the beginning of the so-called "war on terror," the Bush Administration has asserted that the prosecution of this ill-defined and open-ended conflict is more important than the basic democratic rights enshrined in our Constitution.
In their view, warrentless wiretapping and electronic eavesdropping, the creation of secret prisons, the torture of prisoners and the elimination of due process are all necessary in the name of fighting terrorism.
But rights that are taken away are not easily restored. That is why we, as journalists, refuse to accept the Administration's rationale that the press has no right to report on the aforementioned things, because we are at war.
The Bush Administration's attacks on journalists in general and The New York Times in particular ought to alarm every American.
An recent editorial in the National Review urged the administration to revoke the Times' White House press credentials. Heather MacDonald of The Weekly Standard called the Times "a national security threat." Fox News Channel's Brian Kilmeade suggested that the government set up a Office of Censorship to screen the news. Jules Crittenden wrote in the Boston Herald that the Times' editors "are hiding behind the idea of freedom of the press" and that "there comes a point where even professional capriciousness and misguided idealism - to be charitable - have to be labeled for what they are: giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Treason."
And MSNBC commentator and San Francisco talk shot host Melanie Morgan said that she "would have no problem with (New York Times' editor Bill Keller) being sent to the gas chamber."
A popular shirt advertised on the right-wing Weblogs has the following words on it: "Tree. Rope. Journalist. Some assembly required."
We only have one response to all this, except that decorum and good taste prevents us from uttering this particular epithet here.
To hear conservatives - the folks who have long railed against giving government too much power - say that it would be perfectly okay for the feds to raid the Times' newsroom and whisk its editors off to jail is Grade-A hypocrisy.
All but one Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives voted last week in favor of a resolution that condemns news organizations for the crime of providing Americans with information about what their government is doing in their names. In the words of Ohio Republican Mike Oxley, the government "expects the cooperation of all news media."
Those are the kinds of words we expect to hear in Cuba, China or North Korea, not from an American politician.
But hypocrisy is no stranger to present-day conservatism. Its followers can support a president who is destroying our civil liberties and Constitution in the name of protecting our civil liberties and Constitution, and support him with a straight face.
As we've seen time and time again, the Bush Administration has shown itself most unworthy of the extraordinary power it has claimed for itself. Rarely does Congress and the courts challenge the Administration. The only effective check on uncontrolled executive power has been the press. The only effective source of oversight has been the press.
That is why freedom of the press is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. It is this nation's last line of defense against tyranny - which I define as a government that refuses to allow the people to know what is being done in their names and tries to suppress politically harmful information.
To those in power who no longer believe in freedom of the press and want to silence those of us who do, I say that I am not afraid of you. You don't scare me. You will not succeed in intimidating and silencing me or my allies and colleagues.
A free and independent press acts as a conduit of both information and debate. When those in power decide who gets to report the news and what stories will be told, the line between democracy and tyranny is erased. When journalists are the targets of criminal investigations from the government and death threats and violence from the far right, we cease to live in a free society.
For anyone who works in journalism and for anyone who still believes in the right to know what those in power are doing, this is the only fight that matters right now. The fate of our nation hangs in the balance.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.