- - Monday, May 15, 2017

Journalists from around the world gathered last week at the Jerusalem Press Club for a conference on Freedom of the Press in the Digital Age, with veteran journalist Carl Bernstein as the keynote speaker.

The news was not good. That was Monday.

On Tuesday, Dan Heyman, a veteran reporter for the Public News Service, was arrested in Charleston, West Virginia, for asking Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price questions he preferred not to answer.

Freedom of the press is in trouble.

The press, the “Fourth Estate,” is meant to serve as a balance to the power centers of government. It is essential to a healthy, functioning democracy. The news industry is struggling to find new business models that will take advantage of the synergy between traditional and digital media, and also enable it to support professional news-gathering at home and abroad.

A key word here is “professional.” Journalists, unlike lawyers, doctors and other professionals, qualify for no license and are not sanctioned for malpractice (unless it reaches the level of libel). “Citizen journalists” and indeed anyone with an agenda and an internet connection can report “news,” which then echoes unchecked, leaving digital scars – remnants of untrue stories which remain online even when corrected - long after the story’s original shelf life has expired.

Financial stresses and the demand of the 24-hour news cycle for instant and constant updating drain the energies of professional journalists who see their work as a mission and a public service. Accuracy and credibility suffer as a result. In addition, the rising generation of journalists is no longer inspired by Woodward and Bernstein, or even by Lois Lane. The new generation sees itself not as traditional journalists, but rather as “content creators.”

Good journalists seek the best version of the truth obtainable. They need access and support to do their work. Sadly, in the past five years, media freedom has declined around the world.

America ranks a poor 43rd of 180 countries in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders. That’s down from 41 in 2016 – even before Donald Trump called the news media “the enemy of the people.” The Obama administration waged a war on whistleblowers who leaked information about its activities, leading to the prosecution of more leakers than any previous administration.

When the president indicts the media as “fake news” and escalates the hostility with a threat of forgoing press briefings altogether, he is leading us in precisely the wrong direction. If we are to continue to be a democracy, we need to be able to question our public officials and demand answers.

Journalists have good reason to be worried.

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