OH in the Newsroom by Leah St. James ~ “My job is to publicly shame people.”
Does that remark shock you? Don’t judge, please! The reporter I’m quoting covers a beat that results in frequent contact with public officials, many of whom are less than transparent with what should be public information. So the thought of purposely shaming that population didn’t shock me when I heard it. Nor did the tone of dry sarcasm.
To reporters, who by nature (or by trade) develop a healthy sense of skepticism, it’s an obligation to shine the light of public examination on the deeds, or misdeeds, of our public officials. More than a cornerstone of our way of life, it’s a right guaranteed in the 1st Amendment of our Constitution.
The concept of freedom of the press wasn’t newly granted by the Constitution, however. It was a right the colonists enjoyed several decades before they declared independence from the British crown. According to Revolutionary War and Beyond, a website devoted to telling the story of the American Revolution and founding of the country, strict regulations originally governed what the colonists could print and publish.
“In particular, it was against the law to print anything that was considered by the government to be seditious libel. This meant anything that criticized the government or its officials. … It didn’t matter whether or not the information was true.”
That changed in 1735 when New York Weekly Journal publisher John Peter Zenger was arrested and charged with seditious libel for printing and distributing views critical of the royal governor. During the trial, Zenger’s attorney argued that the printed information was true and therefore not libelous, so Zenger could not be found guilty. Happily, the jury agreed, acquitted Zenger, and a new right was born.
Later, during the fight for independence, the press played an important role in sharing information and ideas of the day, so much so that the drafters of the Constitution (most notably George Mason of Virginia) insisted on including its protection not just in the document, but in that important first amendment.
I thought about that today, Memorial Day—a day we reserve to honor the men and women of our armed services who have paid with their lives to protect our way of life.
So while I urge those in the press to never stop shining the light on public officials, their deeds and their misdeeds, most of all, I honor and thank the millions of American service men and women who have fought (and continue to fight) to protect their right to do so
Leah writes stories of mystery and romance, good and evil and the redeeming power of love. In her spare time :-), she works in a busy newsroom of a daily newspaper where holding public officials’ feet to the fire is a top priority..