Robert Azzi: A free press is there to shine a light

For the Monitor
Published: 12/29/2020 9:28:53 AM

‘Remember,” I was recently cautioned, “it’s a holiday season – write less about darkness, more about light.”

I’ll write about light. I’ll write that if it’s true that “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” as Justice Brandeis wrote, then we must be vigilant in assuring that our Public Square remain free of corruption and autocracy though the constant application of Brandeis’ disinfectant.

Through the Beauty of Light.

In 1787, during a parliamentary debate in London as to whether the British House of Commons should open itself to the press, Edmund Burke said that while there were “… Three Estates in Parliament … in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

Burke’s recognition of the press as the Fourth Estate was the first time it had been so institutionalized.

That same year, in Philadelphia, The United States Constitution was adopted and, four years later, the Bill of Rights, headed by the First Amendment which declared that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Enshrined in the Constitution were our ‘Three Estates’ – Congress, Executive, Judicial – whose powers are vested by our Constitution.

Our Fourth Estate, “more important far than they all” – watchdog, witness for the people, disinfectant – was enshrined in the First Amendment.

“More important far than they all.”

Journalist Glenn Greenwald has written that “A key purpose of journalism is to provide an adversarial check on those who wield the greatest power by shining a light on what they do in the dark, and informing the public about those acts.”

Sunlight as disinfectant – the Fourth Estate its agent – has been institutionalized since our very founding and in general it’s worked out well.

It worked for Ida Tarbell when she exposed the illegal monopoly controlled by John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil.

It worked when the press revealed that Senator Joseph McCarthy’s charges against the army to be false, ending McCarthy’s witch hunt.

It worked when Sy Hersh exposed the massacre of 109 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai.

It worked when CBS’s Walter Cronkite told the American people: “For it seems now more certain than ever, that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate… that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

It worked when the Washington Post and New York Times published the Pentagon Papers after the Supreme Court denied President Nixon’s petition to suppress publication.

It worked in 2013 in exposing NSA’s illegal mass surveillance of American citizens, leading to congressional reforms to ensure the civil liberties of all citizens; leading to, as the ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer stated ” … the most important surveillance reform bill since 1978, and its passage is an indication that Americans are no longer willing to give the intelligence agencies a blank check.”

That’s what the press does.

In 2016 records – The Panama Papers – were obtained from an anonymous source by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which shared them its international partners – who published them – revealing the complex and secretive ways the corrupt rich – including 12 national leaders – exploit offshore tax havens to conceal their corruption.

Shining a light on what is done in the dark – that is what the press does – and it does it well.

In 2020, when the truth about the virulence of the novel coronavirus was being withheld in America it took journalist Bob Woodward – of Watergate fame – to release the COVID-19 tapes and show how Americans were being put at risk through government deception.

These are difficult days for a free press. Buffeted by economics interests on one side – especially in small markets – and by extreme right-wing interests living in a media ecosystem driven by parochial, xenophobic, supremacists interests on the other, it appeared for a short time that what has been derisively called “fake news” was going to be supplanted by non-sourced, extremist social media platforms operating on Facebook and Twitter and appearing on faux-news sites like OAN, NewsMax, and QAnon.

That’s not going to happen. The Fourth Estate is getting better, bigger, more aggressive – especially at the national level – and it’s my prayer that revival will extend to local markets as well.

For example, last year the Washington Post expanded its investigative journalism capacity by adding 10 staff positions, including in foreign, sports, climate and environment reporting and this week it announced it will further expand its global capacity by creating hubs in Europe and Asia and expand its international presence to 26 locations and will also expand its domestic coverage as well.

It’s important to recognize that such light helps us to see, to discern the truth of a matter not by how an event fits into our preconceived order but by facts explaining its presence.

An unfettered free press, supported by the testimony of courageous citizens, is essential to our very existence.

In a recent khutbah, sermon, that appeals to our common humanity Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl preached, .“..To put it simply, wherever you find despair, anxiety, anger or hate, the light is absent. The very nature of God’s light is repose, peace and a state of happiness. Where there is love, there is that light. Where there is happiness, there is that light. Where there is suffering, there is the absence of light… Where human beings cause harm, there is the absence of light…”

Where human beings cause despair, suffering and harm that is where the Fourth Estate must stand – shining a light on what is done in the dark.

It is through the beauty of such light we remain free.




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