Why a Free Press Matters Now More Than Ever

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Why a Free Press Matters Now More Than Ever

Public News Service reporter Dan Heyman was arrested in the West Virginia State Capitol. (Screenshot)

Freedom of the press is at the very top of the Bill of Rights, our founders’ list of freedoms essential to democracy. That a reporter can now be arrested in the United States for doing his job, asking a public official about public business in a public place, should send a chill of dread through the heart of every person in this country.

Dan Heyman, a radio reporter for Public News Service in West Virginia, asked Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to respond to a question just days after a narrow vote in the House to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which if passed will end health coverage for 24 million Americans.  When Price didn’t respond, Heyman asked again. He persisted.

Then he was arrested. For asking a question and insisting on an answer.

“I went to the capitol to do my job and ask a question — not looking for trouble or intending to disrupt some state process,” Heyman writes in the Washington Post. “But for asking a question, the capitol police took my phone, handcuffed me, fingerprinted me and sent me off in an orange jumpsuit.”

To make matters worse, HHS Secretary Price later congratulated the officers, saying they “did what they felt was appropriate” in making the arrest, which he justified. “That gentleman was not in a press conference,” he said.

On its own the arrest raises the specter of unacceptable curtailing of freedom of the press. Together with President Trump’s relationship with the media, which has now turned blatantly hostile, this represents the real threat of losing a freedom we take for granted in this country – reporters doing their job.

Imagine if the dogged investigation and questioning of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, reporters at the Washington Post, had landed them in jail instead of a Pulitzer Prize. Their months of questions, their job, uncovered the Watergate burglary and political crimes that eventually led to the resignation of Richard Nixon from the presidency.

Or the silencing of icon Helen Thomas, known for her persistent questioning of 10 presidents during her decades with the White House press corps.

This right to question elected officials is indelible, it’s ingrained in our culture and is among the guarantees of the First Amendment: freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom to assemble peaceably.

A free press, the right to ask questions of public officials, elected office holders, and to openly challenge our government is at the heart of our democracy. Not only the press, but each and every person in this country has the right to ask questions, speak their mind and be engaged, in the governing of the country.

The free press, an open internet, Freedom of Information laws and Sunshine laws provide us with free access to a variety of opinions and knowledge, data, records, and thought, whether you agree with it or not. Arresting a reporter in West Virginia for asking a question is loud warning that we must be vigilant in protecting our freedoms.

However, even more terrifying the attempt to muzzle Saily Avelenda, a New Jersey woman who felt compelled to leave her job as a bank vice president after Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) sent a note to her employer pointing out her quote in a press article.

At the bottom of a fundraising letter to Joseph O’Dowd, a board member of Lakeland Bank and a Frelinghuysen donor, decrying House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democrat tactics, the Republican congressman handwrote a personal message:

“P.S. One of the ringleaders works in your bank!”

Avelenda later told the New York Times she wasn’t asked to resign, but was so  uncomfortable about being confronted over her activities that she ended up leaving her job.

Frelinghuysen’s note is a deeply troubling abuse of power. That a public official can threaten the livelihood of one of his constituents over comments and opinions made in her personal time, away from work, is a death knell for democracy.

Fear of asking a question, speaking to a reporter or voicing your opinion to the wrong person hearkens to practices of a police state and all the terrifying images that rightly evokes.

Certainly there are countries where journalists report only on the official news reports issued by the government, with no ability to ask follow up questions, and dire consequences for those who dare challenge the policies and wisdom of those running the government.  Thank God the United States isn’t one of them. Yet.

Last week Trump tweeted that he would consider replacing the traditional daily press briefings provided by the White House press secretary with his own occasional press conferences and issued statements.

“Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future “press briefings” and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???” Trump tweeted.

And in February, when he asked then-FBI Director James Comey to dial back his investigation into Russian collusion with Trump campaign staff during the 2016 presidential elections, he also reportedly encouraged Comey to throw reporters in jail for publishing unauthorized leaks.

In an interview four decades after their investigative reporting on Watergate earned a Pulitzer Prize, Woodward and Bernstein said they wished they had asked Nixon one more question: “Why?”

“He even raises it himself in his farewell from the White House, [which] was so mesmerizing when you watched it,” Bernstein says in the 2014 interview.

Nixon said:  “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”

Kathy Mulady

Kathy Mulady is the National Press Secretary at People's Action Institute.

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