Dark clouds loomed over press freedom during Sunshine Week

March 19, 2018 01:30

March 11-17 was 2018’s Sunshine Week, “the annual nationwide celebration of access to public information and what it means for you and your community.”
A lofty notion, to be sure, and a generally successful one in the past. But this year’s celebration was marred by a series of events and actions that turned what aspired to be a week of fair weather for press freedom and the public’s need to know into a gloomy seven days instead.
Here are just some of the things we learned during Sunshine Week:
  • An Associated Press analysis revealed that during the first eight months of the Trump administration it fully complied with only about 20 percent of the requests for public documents it received under the Freedom of Information Act. The federal government spent nearly $41 million taxpayer dollars during that time defending its decisions not to turn over documents. The AP headline read, “U.S. sets new record for censoring.”
  • The U.S. Air Force ordered a freeze on public outreach, which includes ending the practice of allowing journalists to embed themselves with airmen and airwomen deployed on missions and placing harsh new restrictions on Air Force service members’ and civilian employees’ ability to speak to reporters. At least the Air Force is allowing USAF band performances to continue.
  • In February, the U.S. Marine Corps permanently banned a journalist and USMC veteran from one of its largest bases, Camp Lejeune, N.C., simply because he had the audacity to visit the base to see a source and a ranking officer accused of sexual assault.
  • The Associated Press also reported that the term “fake news” – weaponized by candidate and now President Trump to discredit responsible journalism he either doesn’t like or finds inconvenient to his personal and political agendas – is now being widely used by state and local elected officials throughout the country. An Idaho state representative even launched her own version of the president’s “Fake News Awards.”
  • The Colorado State Senate ordered more than 100 staff and interns not to speak with journalists about ongoing investigations into workplace harassment complaints and anti-harassment training courses that were underway.
  • A Kentucky State Police public affairs officer issued an “order" threatening to remove news organizations from his media distribution list unless they agreed not to report any stories about KSP investigations until the agency had issued an official press release. The order has since been rescinded
  • Television station WSB reported that current and former Atlanta City Hall officials had actively conspired to obstruct the release of documents related to investigations the station had conducted into local elected officials having unpaid water bills and making an outrageously expensive taxpayer-funded junket to South Africa.
  • In January, a New Hampshire prosecutor demanded that a reporter for the Foster Daily Democrat newspaper turn over an unpublished jailhouse interview with a sexual assault suspect. New Hampshire has a “shield law” designed to protect journalists from having to testify or disclose certain types of information related to their reporting. The newspaper’s attorney is fighting the order.
 Troubling on an entirely different level, we learned:
  • A reporter and photojournalist for San Diego television station KGTV were physically assaulted during a live shot. Thankfully, neither was injured seriously, although the station’s camera was broken during the attack.
  • In tiny Eau Claire, Wis., a man threatened to “blow up” a radio station unless it stopped playing the same songs repeatedly. For some reason, the man thought it would be smart to leave his name and telephone number on his phone message. When contacted by police, the man claimed it had been a joke. But neither the police nor the radio station is laughing. The matter has been referred to prosecutors and the man may soon face charges of making a terroristic threat.
According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which RTDNA is a founding partner, there were at least 44 physical assaults on journalists in 2017. The attack on the San Diego television news crew will be the fourth known assault so far this year.
Also in 2017, there were 34 arrests of journalists who were merely fulfilling their constitutionally-guaranteed duty to seek and report the truth. So far, fingers-crossed, there have been no documented arrests in 2018.
Despite the dark clouds that threatened press freedom during Sunshine Week, there were some proverbial rays of hope.
One of the reporters who was subject to the ten arrests of journalists in St. Louis during several days of civil unrest in September is fighting back. Mike Faulk of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who was not only arrested but, he says, repeatedly pepper sprayed and otherwise roughed up by officers, had filed a federal lawsuit against the city of St. Louis and nearly a dozen police commanders and officers.
Faulk’s nine-count lawsuit demands a jury trial and seeks unspecified punitive damages.
Perhaps even more heartening, several news organizations in New York City have filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit brought by the NYPD’s largest labor union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which seeks to keep footage from officer-worn body cameras private.
The nation’s largest local police department is on track to have all of its more than 40,000 uniformed officers fitted with body cams by the end of this year. An attorney for the media coalition said, "The idea that the citizens of New York, who pay a lot for these cameras and for this program, would never be able to see any of the footage, no matter the circumstances, is really troubling. It's not acceptable."
Amen to that.
About a year ago, RTDNA formed the Voice of the First Amendment Task Force, which has two missions. First, it defends against any and every attack on press freedom. Second, it works to help the public better understand why outstanding responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives.
Every time a journalist is harassed, threatened, obstructed, arrested or assaulted, that journalist is not the victim. The real victims are the public those journalists serve. All across America, every single day, journalists are working hard to expose corruption and other problems in their communities that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.
Many times, the work of those journalists serves as catalysts for positive change. Here are a few examples:
  • WVUE-TV in New Orleans did a series of investigative reports exposing non-profits and public entities that were misusing funds.
  • KXAS-TV in Dallas exposed the rampant problem of Dallas County school buses that were running red lights and committing other traffic violations, endangering children.
  • American Public Media produced the podcast “In the Dark,” which uncovered how Minnesota police mishandled the investigation into the 27-year-old disappearance of young Jacob Wetterling, which became a story of world-wide interest.
  • KWCH-TV in Wichita did an investigative report detailing how several small-town police officers who’d been disciplined or fired in one or more departments were easily finding work in others.
  • KQED Radio in San Francisco discovered high levels of carcinogens in many California public water supplies, leading the state to toughen its regulations.
  • CBS News correspondent David Begnaud went to Puerto Rico to cover Hurricane Irma and stayed for two weeks, committing repeated flagrant acts of responsible journalism. He not only documented for the world the government’s sluggish response to the disaster in the U.S. territory, he personally ensured that victims were getting food, water and other supplies. He has returned several times to monitor the recovery. When asked about his efforts, Begnaud replied, simply, “This is what journalism is meant to do.”

The work of these news organizations and journalists, and thousands of others, has made a tangible difference in the lives of millions of their fellow Americans.
It gives me hope that next year’s Sunshine Week will be sunnier indeed.