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From AJR,   June/July 2012  issue

Whatever Happened to Fear of the Press?   

Reflections inspired by the episode in which reporters were escorted out of a Mitt Romney Q and A at, of all places, the Newseum. Mon., June 18, 2012.


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

The recent dust-up over tossing reporters out of a Mitt Romney event at the Newseum was ironic enough on its own. But it also adds to an expanding pattern that makes you think nobody's very afraid of the press anymore.

Once, standard advice warned, "Don't pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel."

People did challenge journalists, of course, but they often regretted doing it. Today the engagements seem more common and the consequences less scary. Politicians, military, police, security agents and others seem almost eager to have their way with press members.

Earlier this year, for example, the "press freedom index" of Reporters Without Borders dropped the United States 27 places, to 47th in the world, based largely on "the many arrests of journalists covering Occupy Wall Street protests."

Partly all this is a reaction to 9/11. Partly it's a consequence of mainstream media's decline in status―and therefore fearsomeness.

And some of it is deserved. Not that long ago, we worried that concentration was making big media unaccountable.

But the oddly balanced relationship between government and journalists has served the country pretty well historically.

Government has every tangible advantage, with its laws and judicial authority and police powers. I've often imagined how life would be different if reporters could show up at an interview carrying search warrants and sidearms!

But, even without those tools, the press somehow has held its ground, managing to sow healthy fear into government at all levels and do a little bullying when necessary.

It would be bad if the power equation shifted too far toward government.

For example, consider the Obama administration's aggressive pursuit of leakers. It isn't surprising, and presidents of both parties have tried it.  But they need to reckon with pushback from the press, enough vigilance and outcry to make sure leak crackdowns don't quash legitimate whistleblowing or foster cover-ups.

Once, a visit by a delegation of publishers and top editors, or even the prospect of one, could intimidate many mayors, police chiefs and even Cabinet officers and presidents.

The relationship was tricky―a mixture of respect and fear, cooperation and adversarialism, public service and backscratching. But fear of the press, as negative as that term sounds, had a moderating effect on government, promoting openness and accountability.

Certainly today's press isn't toothless. After all, it was reporting by the New York Times and others on terrorism and computer attacks on Iran that sparked the current leaks investigation. Twitter and other social media grew aflutter with derision of the Romney-Newseum episode. The Web allows tons more freelance whistleblowing and leaking than ever before.

But none of that substitutes for the collective clout of the institutional press, uncorked every now and then as society's most effective counterweight to government arrogance and aggrandizement.  

Government represents the legitimate means by which citizens exercise authority; it also makes mistakes, covers up dirt and needs oversight. The press is mostly a profit-seeking business whose aggressiveness can be annoying and crass; it also serves the public interest in keeping government accountable.

That's too good a balance to lose.