The United States: A Country Allergic to Dissidence

Upon reading the chapter, “Propelling Black Americans Into the Promised Land” in Rodger Streitmatter’s book, “Voices of Revolution,” I was impressed at Robert Abbott’s unrelenting determination in how he influenced the Great Migration — the mass exodus of African Americans from the South to the North — through his weekly paper, The Defender.

Abbott was crafty in the ways in which he published and distributed his weekly newspaper — from getting black porters to deliver  copies to newsboys as they headed south to his creation of migration fever. But what I found to be most impressive about Abbott as a dissident journalist and radical social advocate is how he essentially continued relentlessly printing The Defender despite it falling under federal investigation.

This particular paragraph in the chapter was small, yet impactful. Because the height of the paper’s circulation coincided with the United States’ involvement in World War I, Streitmatter said, the United States established a special surveillance operation that combined military, the postal service and Justice Department.

“Because their mutual goal was to maintain national security during World War I and the Defender was a self-declared voice of dissent, the paper was declared ‘subversive’ and emerged as a primary target for federal investigation,” Streitmatter said.

It doesn’t surprise me that our American government would act this way toward radicalism and dissidence. Hearing about the ways in which the federal government has reacted toward figures like Abbott, and currently acts toward today’s journalists like James Risen, is unsurprising yet still infuriating, as I would expect in a “free” society that the government would not try to suppress the voices of its citizens, no matter how outspoken or radical they may be.

This, however, is not the case with the United States government. In fact, the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers more than any other president combined. To worsen the matter, this administration has also doled out longer jail sentences against whistleblowers than previous presidents — 526 months of prison time for national security leakers as of October 2014.

A lot can be said about a government who chooses to suppress and even jail its own reporters, especially a government whose own constitution explicitly outlines the freedoms of the press. Throughout history, the United States government has shown that issues of national security and protecting national interest trumps the liberties and freedoms of its citizens. It is the hallmark of a country who tends to act within in its own self-interest rather than for the betterment of its people. Perhaps what is even more troubling is the ways in which this country’s government officials try to mask their invasive policies under the guise of national security and “protection.”

Where is the line drawn between the protection of a country and the protection of its citizen’s civil liberties?

This is where the duty of the journalist becomes ever more prominent. Like with Roger Abbott, who didn’t stop the circulation of The Defender even when it came under government surveillance, journalists today can and should not be baited by terror into staying silent in their pursuit to uncover injustice and corruption.

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The Pitfall of Journalism Schools

After The Intercept article, “Freedom of Press Launches Fundraiser to Aid Heroic Journalists in Police Brutality Investigations,” I found the most poignant part to be during the Q&A between Glenn Greenwald and Brandon Smith, when Smith is asked to explain why he thinks many mainstream journalists are soft in questioning governmental authority.

His answer: “I think it starts way back in journalism school.”

Smith goes on to further elaborate how, when he attended journalism school, he was never told to question authority in the way that he remained skeptical of the Chicago Police Department, ultimately leading to his pursuits to obtain the video that incriminated the Chicago PD in the killing of Laquan McDonald.

This type of teaching, in which students are reminded of the importance of questioning authority, is a quality I find severely lacking in Ithaca College’s own journalism department. As a second-semester sophomore, I have taken a bulk of introductory journalism classes in which the basic tenets of journalism are presented and discussed countless times. Over the course of these classes, I have learned all there is to know about the inverted pyramid, writing leads, objectivity, interviewing sources — the dos and dont’s of journalism.

But from these classes, I have never learned to question authority. I have learned to be curious, yes, but never skeptical. Curiosity implies a sense of timidness, wanting to know but not wanting to question. However, skepticism is different. It is a word that carries the weight of an unmasked truth or a dark secret waiting to be revealed.

Like what Smith said, this is a quality that has gone missing in many journalism schools. And while the very characteristic of skepticism cannot necessarily be taught, the idea can be introduced. The pitfall here is the fact that the idea does not get placed onto the table at all. As a result, journalism students lack the drive to constantly question the powerful institutions that control the country. Similar to the attitudes of many mainstream outlets like The Chicago Tribune and The New York Times, these young, budding journalists may grow to become apathetic, complacent reporters who place too much trust in their sources and dutifully accept whatever information is given to them.

In my own personal discovery as a journalist, I have taught myself to be skeptical and to constantly question information. The same cannot readily be said about other journalism students, both at Ithaca College and in other journalism programs across the country, who may not even entertain the importance of skepticism because it was never introduced to them.

It seems there is an environment of complacency surrounding mainstream media in which institutions and government officials are mostly trusted despite the growing level of distrust of these powerful institutions by the American people. Only a resurgence and reinvigoration of skepticism can mobilize journalists to investigate and serve the public interest of discovering corruption and mishandling. This kind of quality is one that can and should be introduced and discussed with young journalism students like me. It is at this time that we are only beginning to build upon our journalistic foundations and form our own principals. It is also at this time that we still remain idealistic, in which we are taught that one of the most important duties as a journalist is to serve the public. But how can we do so successfully if the very ideal that could help us fulfill this obligation remains a secret?