Let’s Not Give Away the Power of the Press
August 28, 2014
Carl Sessions Stepp

Most of us have more sources of news these days than ever before, from legacy media to niche sites to the infinitude of street tweeters. This is a positive trend, but it raises at least one big concern.

As news coverage democratizes and as producers proliferate, the fabled “power of the press” may diminish. Without that power, how will news organizations stand up for journalists, such as those pushed around by police in Ferguson, Missouri, or targeted abroad by terrorists? Or against the Obama administration’s backward policies on leaks and secrecy?

When mainstream news organizations were riding at their highest, they were tougher targets. In those days, too, even in war zones reporters were often extended at least some Red Cross-like protection by combatants.

Today’s era of reader empowerment isn’t bad, of course. Too much media concentration stifles innovation and accountability. I feel better informed getting news and views from dozens of sources every day instead of one or two big papers and evening newscasts. I can self-aggregate my news or use any number of sites to do it conveniently.

In such an age, though, it becomes harder and harder for institutional media to hold onto their economic and political power. This sounds pretty good. But disempowered media are vulnerable media, and we’re seeing multiple examples of it.

Much of this was recently chronicled in a New York Times piece on the prevailing “harsh environment” for journalists.  

Using examples “from Missouri to Syria,” the Times said today’s reporters face conditions “complicated by changes in the way that journalists work,” many of them freelancing, and a change in how “they are viewed by both governments, and the public.”

Of course, police and government officials have long acted as adversaries, and war zones have cost many reporters their lives. I have noted before that today’s climate seems different.

Fewer and fewer media seem big and fearsome enough to directly confront and scare off the bullies.

Writing about his detention in Ferguson, Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery told of warning an arresting officer, “This story’s going to get out there. It’s going to be on the front page of The Washington Post tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” the unfazed officer responded, “well, you’re going to be in my jail cell tonight.”

Lowery’s Twitter feed documents the tensions between police and journalists in Ferguson in August, the month unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot there by a police officer. The story gained national attention amid protests and community unrest over the shooting and how it was handled by law enforcement.

A half century ago, at the peak of the civil rights movement, there were also clashes between protesters and police. But the mainstream press still commanded the national agenda, and its power was a lifeline.

Journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff document this in their Pulitzer-winning book “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation.”

They write of activist and later congressman John Lewis, who said he “felt safe as long as he could see reporters and they could see him….There was an extraordinary power of communications operating parallel to, and intertwined with, the movement.”

The scariest moments, Lewis said, came when officials could maneuver protesters away “from the comforting eyes of journalists.” As one guard sneered, “Ain’t no newspapermen out here.”

In separate interviews a few years ago, both Roberts and Klibanoff elaborated on the importance of press power. Roberts  recalled how protesters who “didn’t trust the local law enforcement people or even the federal law enforcement people” would call New York Times reporter Claude Sitton and say, “‘There’s a story here. You ought to be here.’ And they felt safe when Claude was around.”

Klibanoff offered similar comments about The Washington Post during a 2013 interview on NPR, in which he drew irreplaceable influence from the simple fact that every day it “landed in the seat of power, at the front door of everyone in government.”

Back then, in the solar system of news, a few mighty planets predominated. They probably had too much power .

But as we build a new, broader, better media system, it’s important to find ways to maintain, and sometimes exercise, individual and collective clout. To be effective, the fourth branch must be sturdy and robust. A bunch of twigs won’t hold up.


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