Friday, August 29, 2014

Ferguson to Foley: Will journalism keep its promise?

Around the world we see the press and its role under attack.That means it’s a bad time to be a journalist and one of the most important times.

In the U.S.there has been a drop in the number of local daily news outlets. Some municipalities, wealthy and poor, go entirely uncovered by reliable journalists. If you live in such a place, you may have no idea what is happening at your city council, in the schools, how your money is being spent.

Much has been written about the decline of newspapers. These pieces talk a lot about how hard it is to keep a newspaper in business and howto monetize the online product.
I haven’t seen as much about the damage this does to communities and the erosion of democracy.

Disenfranchised citizens are the prized possession of the powerful. Regardless of income, people who don’t keep up with local news, who don’t vote, don’t work to find and promote candidates they can support, don’t demand good policy and leadership from their elected officials – these people can’t keep a hand in piloting public policy. In this country, with a pervasive anti-intellectualism, speaking knowledgeably about or even questioning public policy can earn a person a reputation as bad company: no fun. I hear some people proudly, sort of defiantly announce that they don’t know anything about ______.It used to be that working class people, poor and struggling people kept up with the news and argued passionately about it. Now, that is seen as the arena of moneyed people who are intolerably out of touch and humorless. But maybe that is changing.

Money stress is exhausting and disenfranchising. Sometimes,the people involved in community projects look comfortably upper middle class,like they have the time and money to give back. Other people ask themselves: How can I attend community events when I can’t keep up with my bills or my kids’needs? And who will take care of the kids or work my second job so I can go?

In Ferguson, Missouri, and around the world,people are starting to pay much closer attention to their local governance. With Ferguson, rancid American racism has been getting a much needed lancing. People who have long been beat down, especially African American people, are getting together and are getting involved.

NPR’s Michel Martin moderated a forum there with the mayor and community members Aug. 28 and it was heated and lively. Michael Brown’s death, Eric Garner’s death – just two of the unarmed black men killed by white police this summer in America– maybe these horrifying and all-too-common incidents will help to wake us all up. Because we shouldn’t tolerate this. We should remember that no matter what color or religion we are, if our neighbors aren’t safe and free with a right to privacy and dignity, none of us are.

But even if we wake up, we can’t get involved if we don’t know what is happening locally, when elections are coming up, when the school board is meeting, what happened at the last town council meeting. We need good writing to give us background and context, and timely reporting to keep us up to date and keep officials accountable. Regional planning is closely related to quality of life. It deals with affordable transportation, housing, and public spaces where you would actually want to spend time. Good regional planning is a force for social justice. It says: we are all worth a beautiful place to spend our leisure time, a safe, healthy, inspiring place for children and adults to relax and meet their neighbors, a city you can walk in. But you can’t keep up with and participate in good regional planning if you don’t know what’s going on where you live.

Your ability to exercise your rights and responsibilities as a citizen erodes as your access to information diminishes. People in power know this very well. What we saw on the streets of Ferguson — if we watched the livestreams of journalists and dedicated citizens — was a systematized violation of U.S. Constitutional rights. From my apartment’s kitchen in Massachusetts,I watched and listened as police on the streets of Ferguson, broadcasting from booming PA systems, repeated the same illegal messages – do not stop on the sidewalk, do not congregate, we do not want you on the streets. I watched live as a police officer pulled a press badge off a journalist and threw it on the pavement,saying it was worthless, telling journalists to get to the designated “First Amendment area.”
“I thought the United States was the First Amendment area,” friends responded on social media. This sounds like a joke –but it is real.

Police officers aimed assault rifles at unarmed citizens and arrested and detained journalists without charging them. The only way we know this is because other people bothered to document it. The same police shot teargas night after night straight at people who were doing their civic duty – citizens protesting injustice committed by their government and journalists trying to get the story. This is your America, people.

A citizenry is only powerless if it refuses to pay attention and refuses to act. Many of us are discouraged and disconnected from our local government. But what our government does is never disconnected from us. From police policies to street paving, it all affects us, and we are paying the bill.

Journalists have a special responsibility to remember and carryout their adversarial relationship to those in power. What stories reporters seek out and how they ask questions should take into account the least powerful in a community, those without a platform for their own voices. Editors bear a different peculiar weight in telling the news. They assign stories and then choose where they run and how much ink or broadcast time stories get.Complacent, spineless editors don’t serve the citizens in their communities. And no matter how hard reporters push, editors are the gatekeepers for choosing which stories run.

James Foley risked his personal safety to tell the truth about people who were living and fighting in Syria and other conflict zones.These stories need to be told, and if journalists don’t do it, no one else will. He thought the risk was worth it, and many people have come forward since his death, civilians, colleagues and members of the U.S. armed forces, to say he was getting it right.

Will we?

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