Christopher Cook

Press Freedoms Aren't Free

Back in a previous lifetime, as a young reporter working for small daily and weekly newspapers, I suffered editors and publishers who routinely practiced easy self-censorship, killed controversial stories and otherwise surrendered press freedoms with alarming frequency. I consoled myself with the notion that someday, in the "big time," I'd no longer suffer such indignities.

By "big time," of course, I meant large daily newspapers and national publications like the New York Times. Or Time magazine. Or even the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

So much for my youthful naiveté. As recent events show -- I mean the events surrounding the public outing of the CIA's Valerie Plame and who is at fault -- the main difference between an editor at a small newspaper caving in to local pressures and a large national publication (such as Time) caving in to larger pressures is a matter of scale. A supermarket pulling its advertising threatens a small-town weekly as surely as fear of a stock value drop threatens Time Inc.

My first experience along these lines occurred in Birmingham, Ala., in 1980. I'd just been hired to cover the police beat when Richard Arrington was elected the city's first black mayor. The cops had two unions, one white and one black, and I soon earned the ire of the white union by giving the black union equal news coverage.

Then the city's white police chief made some highly imprudent remarks about having a black man -- Arrington, the new mayor -- as his boss. The chief was angry (and surprised) when my story quoting him appeared in the newspaper. A fire storm broke out. The city's powers feared a return to those days when Birmingham was full of racial unrest and violence. The police chief was forced to resign.

A few days later, the newspaper fired me. Everyone "in the know" presumed the two events were connected, that a backroom deal had been made. Maybe so. But the newspaper enjoyed the legal right to fire me without cause, so that was that.

I moved on, became a bartender, then a carpenter. I turned down offers for reporting jobs elsewhere. That editors at some newspapers thought the treatment I'd received in Birmingham was unfair did not placate me. I was angry that "freedom of the press" seemed so tenuous. But I eventually returned to journalism, taking a reporting job for a small daily newspaper in Georgia.

After several months there, I wrote stories on the judicial records of two local judges vying for a higher court position. As it turned out, both judges had been routinely letting off friends and "important people" on drunk driving charges while sticking it to everyone else. The two stories (one on each judge) were set to run over two days.

On the morning the first story appeared, the publisher appeared in the newsroom shouting. Both judges were his country club friends; he was embarrassed. The second story would not run. "But we ran the first story already," the editor said. "Two wrongs don't make a right," the publisher replied. The second story was killed. And that was that.

So I moved on to a medium-size daily newspaper in Texas, my native state. After several months, I was assigned to write a thrice-weekly feature column. In addition, I'd write stories that I happened across in my work. One of those stories concerned a county sheriff who was stopped in another county for driving drunk. While in his official car, he led sheriff deputies and state highway patrol on a wild high-speed chase before being apprehended.

Being a brother law officer, he wasn't officially charged. But other cops were unhappy with his behavior and gave me the story, which I verified (with much legwork). Contacted, the sheriff refused to comment. But as the story went to press, he called my editor, who killed the story. I protested, to no avail. Then the editor killed an unrelated column I wrote, calling it controversial, and demoted me from columnist to general assignments. The publisher agreed it was a fine compromise. So I quit. And that was that. (Except when I belatedly received a journalism award for my feature columns, the editor showed up at the banquet to accept it.)

By this time in my journalism career, still nowhere near the "big time," I was feeling a tad jaded. Freedom of the press? Reporters fervently believed in it. Most publishers did not. Editors were stuck in the middle, an uncomfortable position. And the average reader never heard a word about the matter -- about the internal tensions at a newspaper, about reporters fired or quit and not about the stories not covered or killed.

So the intense, recent coverage by the media of the internal mechanisms of a free press, coverage prompted by the Plame affair, is somewhat refreshing. But not terribly reassuring. The New York Times has stood its ground, a commendable act. Time magazine has not, and its reputation will suffer for it, at least among journalists. Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the newspaper editor announced he is withholding important investigative stories based on anonymous sources because he fears legal repercussions. That seemed awfully wishy-washy, as if he expected the general public to rise up in the newspaper's defense (it didn't).

So it goes. All I can say is -- and this is garnered from personal experience -- freedom of the press isn't free. It costs something. Otherwise, it wouldn't be a seen as high principle; it'd simply be a routine business practice.

Christopher Cook, a native of East Texas, is the author of Robbers and Screen Door Jesus; he currently lives in Prague, Czech Republic.

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