60 Years in Journalism: The Press as "The Enemy"

Large crowd of people with and without disabilites participating in a Freedom March to advocate for the civil rights of peopl
Large crowd of people with and without disabilites participating in a Freedom March to advocate for the civil rights of people with disabilities.

When I covered civil rights stories in the 1960s, we reporters were warmly welcomed to black churches and meeting places where protests were organized, often preceded by hymns and inspirational oratory.

The attitude of many white Southerners, those who bothered to talk to us, was that "outside agitators" were creating the protests, abetted by reporters from Northern media. Without our coverage, we were told, the protests would quickly peter out and tranquility return. The NBC station in Jackson, Mississippi, preceded the nightly network news with a disclaimer: The opinions on this national broadcast are not necessarily those of this station.

When I did a bit of window shopping one evening on my way to dinner, the proprietor of a store, seeing the brick-size cassette tape recorder on my shoulder, came out and spat on the pavement in front of me.

A more temperate Southern gentleman in a passing car offered me a lift to my hotel, along with a lecture. Your side, he said, is going to win. And then the "Nigras" down here will be worse off. They live among us, we take care of them; when they're sick, we see to it that they're cared for. That will end. Then what will happen is that the race problem will move North. There they live separated from you, and when they rise up, you won't know what to do.

A half century on, after the rights of equality, including at the ballot box, were etched in federal law, and institutions from banks to newsrooms to universities took major steps to encourage minority representation, the need to protest is being felt again. Several state legislatures have added procedural roadblocks to voting, with the concurrence of courts, and the effort by college administrations to diversify student bodies has also been circumscribed by court decisions. The Justice Department is investigating the use of deadly force by the police. So progress must again be made and reporters have returned to the civil rights beat.

But it was the reverse of progress when campus civil rights demonstrators recently sought to shut the "enemy" press out, including the student press. It was an unpleasant surprise to have it happen, with support from a faculty member no less, at the University of Missouri, which houses one of the premier schools of journalism in the country. And while major newspapers seek out conservative columnists to balance their op-ed liberals, student newspapers have faced campus pressure to do the opposite, to stick to a narrow point-of-view.

At the same time, politicians aspiring to the Presidency have been castigating the press and getting applause for it. Ironically, they can easily evade questions from reporters by retreating behind their security agents.

The notion that the press is in league with the enemy came up during the Vietnam War, when groups jeering anti-war demonstrators insisted that the protests, organized by agitators, would peter out if the press weren't on their side. Some went a giant step further, to allege that the press "lost" the war for America. The Army's official historian rebutted that notion in a lengthy analysis of "The Military and the Media," suggesting that the reporters who went into battle with troops were closer to speaking truth than the top brass were, and it was the unacceptable level of American casualties that drained public support for the war.

In an echo of those days, we now have the Pentagon conducting an investigation of misleading reports it received from its own officers of progress in Iraq.

There has been an unprecedented level of prosecutions in recent years of public servants who leak information to reporters. Most leaks come from self-serving public officials themselves. Some are from opponents of a policy who want to torpedo it. Some are attempts to send a message to superiors who don't want to hear it.

When family members were appalled by the treatment of wounded warriors at Walter Reed Hospital, they complained through military channels to no avail. Then some remembered a military affairs reporter at the Washington Post who was known for digging deep and writing carefully. They took their concerns to her, the Post allowed her and two colleagues the time and resources for penetrating research, and the result was a congressional investigation, an upheaval in the Department of the Army and the Veterans Administration to improve medical care, and a Pulitzer Prize for the newspaper.

Contrast that with what happened at Cape Canaveral in a previous decade, when engineers warned their superiors that a small but crucial piece of hardware on the Space Shuttle Challenger had a flaw, and it could be exacerbated by cold weather at the launch pad. The Challenger launched anyway, and broke apart almost immediately. What if one of those engineers had quietly picked up a phone and briefed one of the expert science correspondents in the nearby press room?

Every year, organizations like the International Center for Journalists honor reporters and editors from countries whose regimes regard them as enemies and make it hazardous to carry on their craft and to expose corruption and malfeasance. Their experiences are often harrowing, and I listen with heart-stopping awe. It is disheartening in the United States of America to see a free press in a democratic country being demonized when it should be celebrated.