The Role and Challenges of a Free Press | Facing History & Ourselves

The Role and Challenges of a Free Press

Reporters and media professionals discuss the functions and importance of a free press in a democracy.
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English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Racism

The Role and Challenges of a Free Press



What we saw in Ferguson was essentially the press being treated no differently from everybody else. And a lot of people say, well, why should they be? Well, it's because the press is representing you. The press has the megaphone. The press can tell the outside world.

Ferguson police have launched tear gas at journalists, disrupted live TV reports--

You can see what's happening. We've been standing here all day. They told us to come here. I can't move.

--and arrested at least six reporters for covering the ongoing protests.

The Al Jazeera America camera crew found itself on the receiving end of tear gas canisters and rubber bullets. Take a look at this video. One of the people you see running from the camera is correspondent Ash-har Quraishi.

The Constitution doesn't make a distinction between the individual and the press when discussing our First Amendment rights to free speech. They're all the same. They all mean the same.

Now, as time went on and the person who owned the printing press became the spokesperson for many, many people or particular interests, and other people didn't have an equal opportunity to express themselves to the wider world, there became a very clear distinction between the press and the public.

That's the way it is. Monday, November 25th, 1963. This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.

That distinction isn't as critical now as it used to be because everybody has a megaphone, right, with a telephone, and everybody can reach the outside world.



But in arresting the press, in assuming that their very presence was a provocation, was a clear indication that the police did not want what was going on photographed, documented, made available to the rest of the nation.

In the same sense that everyone has become some form of a journalist with their smartphones, they've also become a watchdog through their respective news feeds and the things that they watch and the things that they say and the things that they share.

But there are people in certain situations where they don't have a voice. And the media and media people have the opportunity to be the voice for the voiceless. If you interrupt or impede that voice in any way, then there are a whole community of people who have no way to let the world know that they're suffering, or even that they are doing good things. So we need the media to have the right to share stories for the sake of the community.

My experience in Ferguson underscored my belief-- the belief I already had, but it really highlighted for me-- the importance of being, one, willing to ask hard questions and being willing to stand up and assert the rights that we do have. Very often the media-- members of the media-- are the representatives of the people by and large, and that if the police were unwilling to allow us to write and report and take photos in the way we are constitutionally empowered to do, what other things are they not allowing people who don't have cameras and press passes to do? And it underscored how vitally important us asserting those rights were.

And the other thing was, I think journalism-- fundamentally, in the United States of America, the reason we have a free press is to hold the powers that be to account, to ask the hard question and to stand up for the voiceless people, for disempowered people. You look at all of the arrests, hundreds of arrests made in Ferguson, Missouri, of peaceful protesters because the police instituted a five-second rule, where you could not stop walking for more than five seconds. That was very quickly, once the ACLU sued, found to be completely unconstitutional. We in fact do have a constitutional right to stand on sidewalks, whether that's with a sign or not.

Without journalists willing to ask the hard questions-- about, no, why do we have to move? Why can't we stand here? Also, what's going to happen to all these arrested people who haven't been charged yet? Can we get a police report for those 600 people?-- without those questions being asked, those people would have to deal with the consequences of this in a way that just would have been completely unfair and unconstitutional. Again, I remember flying back into Ferguson, Missouri, in October and on that day having a front-page story about all of these arrests that had happened during these protests-- we dug through all the arrest records-- and concluding, essentially, that they had been done largely without rhyme or reason. People who were never told why they were under arrest, people who were never told-- people who were never given any explanation, who were released without a police report, people whose bail or bond had been applied seemingly randomly.

These are all issues of people's rights. And without a free press, without a press that's willing to ask hard questions of police-- and that doesn't mean the police are-- that doesn't mean that the press is against the police. It's not an anti-police thing. It's a pro-freedom thing. It's about knowing that we live in a situation-- in a structure, in a society, where we're allowed to ask hard questions of the powers that be, that our social construct relies specifically and fundamentally on a society in which we ask hard questions of the people to whom we give power. And Ferguson underscored that in so many ways.



The Role and Challenges of a Free Press

Facing History & Ourselves & the News Literacy Project

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