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Toledo Legal News - Editorial List Table

 

Protect journalists with the same laws that protect all of us

 

I understand the motivation behind the just-proposed Journalist Protection Act, which would make it a federal crime to attack those involved in reporting the news. The legislation comes at a time of particularly vocal attacks on news operations and individual reporters, many of which stem from the highest office in the land.

I admire the goal — preventing or penalizing misguided thugs who would censor through violence. And I salute California Rep. Eric Swalwell for introducing it in an era in which support for journalism is at an all-time low.

But some part of me — the free press advocate in me — hopes the proposed act never becomes law. Not because journalists don't need protection, but because I fear unintended consequences. As the old maxim goes, "No good deed goes unpunished."

The great power, and the proper position, of a free press has always been that it represents "the people." The press is — simply and magnificently — not a group apart, but part of that group. It is not made up of "elites" or players united in some grand conspiracy to control the news or steer the nation, as some grandstanding politicians claim, but a disjointed gaggle of vocal, well-informed fellow citizens, who are employed to report on behalf of us all. Those who would damage democracy's checks and balances by isolating the "watchdogs on government" from fellow citizens would like nothing better than to have journalists themselves give credence to such a separation.

In a Feb. 5 news release, Rep. Swalwell makes his good case for the Journalist Protection Act: "President Donald Trump's campaign and administration have created a toxic atmosphere. It's not just about labeling reports of his constant falsehoods as #FakeNews — it's his casting of media personalities and outlets as anti-American targets, and encouraging people to engage in violence."

Swalwell, while conceding that not all attacks against journalists in the U.S. can be connected to Trump, said nonetheless that "such antagonistic communications help encourage others to think, regardless of their views, that violence against people engaged in journalism is more acceptable."

Journalism groups also noted, in the news release, the dangers their members now face. Broadcasters in the field often work alone or with a single colleague, said Charlie Braico, president of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians. "With their expensive and cumbersome equipment, they are easy and tempting prey for anti-media extremists and thieves."

"Dozens of physical assaults on journalists doing their jobs were documented by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker in 2017," said Rick Blum, director of News Media for Open Government. "Physical violence and intimidation should never get in the way of covering police, protesters, presidents and other public matters."

The tracker that Blum refers to is a new database, launched and operated by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which logs arrests, harassment and physical attacks on journalists. As of Feb. 7, it showed that since January 2017, 30 reporters in the U.S. have been attacked while covering protests and two reporters had been assaulted by politicians. (Note: The Newseum is among the journalism groups supporting the database project.)

Globally, the situation is much grimmer: According to Freedom House, an international freedom advocacy group, barely 13 percent of the world's population lives in nations where the press is considered free. The CPJ reports two journalists killed thus far in 2018, 262 imprisoned since 2017, and 58 journalists missing around the world.

So to all those critics who already are attacking Swalwell's bill as unneeded or rooted in partisan politics — sorry, but the threat to journalists is real from those who consider violence an acceptable form of press criticism.

Still, we should be wary of giving journalists a special place in the zone of laws that already protect us all from assault, battery or worse. Granted, the proposed act could be an alternative when local officials refuse to follow up on an attack — or do so ineffectively. But I like the old newsgathering maxim that "journalists have no more rights than anyone else ... but also have no fewer rights."

Better to encourage police and prosecutors to zealously do their jobs when an attack occurs. Better we hold accountable politicians and others who — for political gain or other unscrupulous motives — choose to simply taunt the news media rather than doing the hard work of legitimate, fact-based criticism.

The Journalist Protection Act is prompted by sincere and worthy motives — and there is a sickness in the land today that condones and encourages threats and violence against journalists. But a free press is better protected by laws that protect us all.

Gene Policinski is president and chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org, or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.

Gene Policinski, First Amendment Center

What to look for in a politician

 

Have you already made up your mind about how you’re going to vote — at least by party — in this year’s important elections? I hope not.

Because to serve our nation well at this troubled time in its political history, you should be looking for certain qualities in the politicians you favor. Ideology, party affiliation, positions on key issues — these are important considerations, but this year demands more from us as voters.

To explain why, I need to spend a little time talking about the current political environment. It is the most agitated I’ve seen in decades. The electorate is badly divided; the parties are split internally and vis-à-vis one another; the national mood is sour; our democratic institutions are unproductive; and our political leaders cannot seem to cooperate with one another, much less engage substantively on the crucial issues we face as a nation. Not surprisingly, politicians face a restive, discontented electorate.

This year’s dynamics don’t bode well for improvement. Republicans have staked their claim to votes on tax cuts, abandoning more traditional concerns such as the deficit and the national debt. Even though they control the government, they’re having trouble getting many things done. Democrats, meanwhile, are moving leftward, and hoping for a November backlash against President Trump.

In general, momentum in both parties seems to be moving toward the extremes, fueling a political debate that rejects the middle ground. This is discouraging.

At the national level the parties seem more interested in their opponents’ unconditional surrender than in carrying on a debate that enlightens voters and attempts to sway opinion. One wonders whether we can ever find the will to negotiate and compromise on difficult issues. Yet we have no choice if we’re to move forward as a large and diverse nation.

Which is why I believe we face a huge responsibility as citizens this year. We may each be certain in our own biases and policy and party preferences, but it is time to step back and ask how we revive the system at a time when people are so discouraged by politics, our institutions, and our politicians.

And the answer, I believe, is that we have to look for politicians who want to build consensus, act constructively, and instill a sense — both in their colleagues and among ordinary voters — that we’re all in this together. We need leaders who can rise above the polarization and divisiveness that current politicians have done so much to exacerbate, and instead begin focusing on cooperation, collective purpose, and the common good.

Our institutions are badly in need of repair. Making them work better, which is urgent, will not happen with scorched-earth politicking. It can only come from political leaders who embrace bipartisanship and the traditional values of democracy: pluralism, free speech, and tolerance for opposing points of view.

We want to find politicians who respect and look for the facts, not simply the facts as they wish them to be. We need to examine candidates’ rhetoric with great care, and understand that it’s easy to state a problem and then lapse into meaningless generalities when it comes to solutions.

By contrast, it’s hard — but vitally important in this climate — to speak with clarity and thoughtfulness not just about what needs to be done, but about how to help make it happen. Politicians who are blatantly unrealistic as they pander to voters’ prejudices — “I’ll balance the budget in three years!” I heard one say the other day without telling us how — do not deserve our attention.

Instead, we should be looking for politicians who can move us beyond our current paralysis. Who are open to different opinions and ideas, will work hard to bring together people of different points of view, and who seek opportunities to discuss public issues forthrightly rather than dodge them. Who prefer to answer hard questions, rather than just give a big speech and then leave the room.

Here’s the bottom line: citizens today carry an extra burden — not merely to pick a politician we might favor for some reason, but to make choices that move us away from ideology and our own biases, and toward getting this country running again.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

Lee Hamilton, Center on Congress Senior Advisor

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