3 min read

Assaults on Free Press Fundamentally Misunderstand Journalists

Journalists are not the enemy.

The truth of that simple statement is subverted by a pair of bills introduced in Florida, seeking to make the tasking of reporting the news even harder than it already is. You can read about the particularities of the bills here, but I wanted to focus on another analysis of the laws.

From a recent news article by The New Yorker’s general counsel:

The panelists and [Ron] DeSantis decried the unfairness of the “actual malice” standard, as articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1964 case New York Times Company v. Sullivan, and the media’s use of anonymous sources. The media, they claimed, were hiding behind these protections to intentionally destroy and smear people’s reputations.

It’s that claim from DeSantis and his roundtable that’s captured my attention: The media are hiding behind protections to intentionally destroy and smear people’s reputations.

It’s just so far afield from what actually animates a newsroom. I can say that with absolute confidence, having served in many of them.

This past weekend, at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, I saw a screening of Bad Press, a film that debuted at Sundance in January.

It follows a scrappy, fearless reporter from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation as she watched the free press law that governed the tribe (one of only five nations out of more than 500 to recognize the right) got voted away before her eyes.

The film documents her (and colleagues’) struggles to do the news in the wake of the change, and their support for the introduction of new legislation that would restore it as a constitutional amendment.

In one powerful scene, she passionately speaks out  at a public meeting while some of the elected officials who’d vote to repeal the free press law sat and watched.  After the meeting, she was called into the office of one of the film’s main antagonists, an elected official with considerable power and who’d cast the deciding vote to revoke the free press law (conveniently not terribly long after he’d been the subject of harassment allegations from a fellow elected official and the paper had reported on it).

It’s an effective sequence in the film because she’s out of the frame for so long. A friend is waiting on her, in the bare halls of a municipal building, and updates are flashed on the screen, marking the passage of time. She was in the official’s office for hours. Viewers’ minds raced: What is he saying to her?  Is he somehow threatening her with retribution for speaking out?

At the conclusion of the film, the reporter, Angel Ellis, came on stage to rapturous applause, a standing ovation. She had won the audience over during the course of the film, with her no-nonsense takes on what was happening around her, delivered in down-to-earth observations and course, unfiltered language.

She came onstage flipping the double middle fingers, a pose she’d struck in the film, one that captured, in a gesture, so much of her hard-charging attitude.

When the Q&A was turned over to the audience, a woman stood up and asked what many of us had been wondering: What happened for those hours off-screen when you were in his office?

I tell this background to highlight her response, which stands in such direct opposition to the claim of DeSantis and cohort: “That was actually an off-the-record conversation.”

That was it.

There, in front of an adoring crowd and so capable of getting swept up by the thrill of the moment, she honored this basic journalistic standard. Toward, no less, an openly hostile foe in her world.

Those values and standards and ethics control most newsrooms, and the people who show up to do their job every single day are not generally the type of people to look lightly on such values. Why would they be? Most of them are intelligent, driven, capable individuals who could almost assuredly be making more money doing almost anything else. They show up because they care, because they believe in the mission of what they’re doing.

It’s not to smear individuals’ reputations.

That thought just doesn’t factor into it for journalists, and you’d think it wouldn’t be so necessary to keep reminding the public of that basic fact.