“Press Freedoms Aren’t Free, They Cost”

[Note from Christopher:  For several years I held a titular post as Central European Correspondent for The Progressive Populist, a biweekly political news journal based in the U.S. It helped that I coincidentally was living in the Central European city of Prague. I believe this effectively held down expenses for the Populist and may have played a role in me getting the position. Also, there was no salary. But I did get press credentials. And I only had to file a report when I felt like it—my favorite kind of job. The founder and editor of the Populist is Jim Cullen, a fine journalist and longtime friend. Jim and I met years ago when we were both toiling for the same daily newspaper. He was a political junkie then and still is. He’s also dedicated to reforming the U.S. political system and creating more economic justice, no small task.

The following piece about the controversial—and illegal—naming of Valerie Plame as a C.I.A. agent by Vice President Dick Cheney’s office was published by the The Progressive Populist. It also appeared in the English language Prague Post in the Czech Republic.]


September 1, 2005

Back in a previous lifetime, as a young reporter working for small daily and weekly newspapers, I suffered editors and publishers who routinely practiced easy self-censorship, killed controversial stories, and otherwise surrendered press freedoms with alarming frequency. I consoled myself with the notion that someday, in the “big time,” I’d no longer suffer such indignities.

By “big time,” of course, I meant large daily newspapers and national publications like The New York Times. Or Time magazine. Or even the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

So much for my youthful naivete. As recent events show—I mean the events surrounding the public outing of the C.I.A.’s Valerie Plame and who is at fault—the main difference between an editor at a small newspaper caving in to local pressures and a large national publication (such as Time) caving in to larger pressures is a matter of scale. A supermarket pulling its advertising threatens a small-town weekly as surely as fear of a stock value drop threatens Time Inc.

My first experience along these lines occurred in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1980. I’d just been hired by the Birmingham Post-Herald to cover the police beat when Richard Arrington was elected the city’s first black mayor. The cops had two unions, one white and one black, and I soon earned the ire of the white union by giving the black union equal news coverage. Then the city’s white police chief made some highly imprudent remarks about having a black man—meaning Arrington, the new mayor—as his boss. The chief used the “n” word. He was angry (and surprised) when my subsequent story quoting him verbatim appeared in the newspaper. A fire storm broke out. The city’s powers-that-be feared a return to those days when Birmingham was full of racial unrest and violence. The police chief was forced to resign. A few days later, the newspaper fired me. Everyone “in the know” presumed the two events were connected, that a backroom deal had been made. Maybe so. But the newspaper claimed the legal right to fire me without cause, so that was that.

I moved on, briefly became a bartender, then a carpenter. I turned down offers for reporting jobs elsewhere. Editors at several newspapers thought the treatment I’d received in Birmingham was unfair. The job offers did not placate me. I was angry that “freedom of the press” seemed so tenuous. But I eventually returned to journalism, taking a reporting job for a small daily newspaper in Georgia.

After several months there, I wrote stories on the judicial records of two local judges vying for a higher court position. As it turned out, both judges had been routinely letting off friends and “important people” on drunk driving charges while sticking it to everyone else. The two stories (one on each judge) were set to run over two days. On the morning the first story appeared, the publisher appeared in the newsroom shouting angrily. The judge was his good country club friend. We mentioned the second story on the second judge, due to run the next day. But that judge, too, was the publisher’s friend. So he killed the story.

“But we ran the first story already,” the editor suggested, “it’s a matter of balance.”

“Two wrongs don’t make a right!” the publisher yelled.

And that was that. Almost.

Because I was not only a reporter but also the newspaper’s weekend editor. And I printed the “killed” story the following weekend. On page one with a big headline. This act was not well received by the publisher.

So I moved on to a medium-size daily newspaper in Texas, my native state. After several months, I was assigned to write a thrice-weekly feature column. In addition, I’d write news stories that I happened across in my work. One of those stories concerned a county sheriff who was stopped in another county for driving drunk. While in his official car, he led sheriff deputies and state highway patrol on a wild high-speed chase before being apprehended. Being a brother law officer, he wasn’t officially charged. But other cops were unhappy with his behavior and gave me the story, which I verified (with much legwork).

So I put the story together. And contacted the sheriff, who refused to comment. But as the story went to press, he called my editor, who killed the story. I protested, to no avail. Then the editor killed an unrelated feature column I wrote, calling it controversial, and demoted me from columnist to general assignments. The publisher agreed it was a fine compromise. So I quit. And that was that once again. (Except for this: When I belatedly received a journalism award for my feature columns, the editor showed up at the banquet to accept it. I wasn’t invited.)

By this time in my journalism career, still nowhere near the “big time,” I was feeling a tad jaded. Freedom of the press? Reporters fervently believed in it. Most publishers did not. Editors were stuck in the middle, an uncomfortable position. And the average reader never heard a word about the matter—about the internal tensions at a newspaper, about reporters fired or quit, and certainly not about the stories not covered or killed.

So the intense, recent coverage by the media of the internal mechanisms of a free press, coverage prompted by the Plame affair, is somewhat refreshing. But not terribly reassuring. The New York Times has stood its ground, a commendable act. Time magazine has not, and its reputation will suffer for it, at least among journalists. Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the newspaper editor has announced he is withholding important investigative stories based on anonymous sources because he fears legal repercussions. That seems awfully wishy-washy, as if he expects the general public to rise up in the newspaper’s defense (it hasn’t).

So it goes. All I can say is—and this is garnered from personal experience—freedom of the press isn’t free. It costs something. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a seen as high principle; it’d simply be a routine business practice.

I bailed out of the profession long ago and now write fiction. But I still care deeply about whether journalists cover stories that are inevitably controversial, and whether those stories are printed and broadcast for the benefit of me, a concerned citizen. If they aren’t, we all suffer. Everyone. Not just the journalists.



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