Press Freedom in Peril?

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If you followed the mainstream media’s coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests earlier this fall, you might have a number of concerns about the state of the American press. For instance, you might be concerned about what the media’s fawning coverage of OWS, which included whitewashing racism and anti-Semitism on the part of OWS participants, says about the press corps’ ability to provide fair and politically dispassionate coverage. Similarly, you might wonder if the volumes of newsprint devoted to an anarchic and often-violent campaign that had no coherent or cohesive agenda might indicate badly confused priorities on the part of media gatekeepers.

One thing you likely would not think is that the extensive coverage of OWS indicated a dramatic decline in American press freedom. That is, unless you were the France-based journalism watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RWB). In the latest version of its annual report on global press freedom, RBW downgraded the U.S. 27 spots, to number 47 in the world. To put this in perspective: By RWB’s measure, the United States, home of the First Amendment, sits just a few notches above Haiti.

RWB’s justification for the dramatic markdown is an alleged “crackdown” on reporters covering OWS. As RWB’s report puts it, the U.S.’s precipitous fall in the rankings reflects “the crackdown on protest movements and the accompanying excesses” that “took their toll on journalists.” In two months, RWB’s report says, “more than 25 [journalists] were subjected to arrests and beatings at the hands of police who were quick to issue indictments for inappropriate behavior, public nuisance or even lack of accreditation.”

As others have noted, this justification is patently ridiculous. In any meaningful comparison, the United States is unrivaled in the freedom it affords its press. But you would hardly know it from the RWB report, which holds the U.S. to a standard imposed on no other nation. Thus, Hungary’s ruling party passed a law granting the government direct control over the media, in effect killing the country’s independent press, yet Hungary fell fewer spots in RWB’s rankings than did the United States. Meanwhile RWB singled out for praise a country like Niger, which came in at 29th in the world in press freedom – this despite the fact that journalists in the country are routinely harassed by state security agencies, the government has a commanding control of broadcasting services, and a corrupt judiciary ensures widespread self-censorship by the press. Despite that, the U.S. still fares worse in RWB’s rankings.

These comparisons are bad enough. Even evaluated on its own terms, though, RWB’s claim that journalists covering OWS were the victims of a “crackdown” fails to withstand serious scrutiny. While it’s true and regrettable that some professional journalists were arrested amidst police crackdowns on OWS protests, those arrests were inadvertent. In making these arrests, police frequently were unable to distinguish between professional journalists and so-called “citizen journalists,” who were, in effect, OWS activists.

At New York’s Zuccotti Park, ground zero of the OWS protests, one of the first journalists to be arrested by police was John Farley, a reporter for local online magazine MetroFocus, who was swept up by police with other protestors. Although justifiably unhappy to be arrested, Farley wondered how “in a sudden burst of urban chaos” can “the police distinguish between passersby and protesters who may be committing civil disobedience or any other type of punishable offense? Or between citizen journalists and professional journalists?”

Unfortunately for some reporters, police couldn’t always make that distinction. The police’s ability to discern between journalists and activists was further complicated by the fact that even many professional journalists, including Farley, were not carrying NYPD-issued accreditation. One can sympathize with the plight of these arrested reporters while recognizing that neither they nor the press generally were the police’s intended targets.

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  • Flipside

    You err. The park is privately owned, but it was created by state fiat in exchange for a variation in the zoning ordinance. In order to build the commercial building in VIOLATION of zoning, the owners were forced to build Zuccotti Park as a commons. You even used the weasel phrase “privately owned public park.” It’s both, therefore it is not neither. Also, American citizens NEVER give up their First Amendment rights, even on your dubiously adored quasi-private property.

    • mrbean

      The forcible occupation of another man’s property or the obstruction of a public thoroughfare or public property is so blatant a violation of rights that an attempt to justify it becomes an abrogation of morality. An individual has no right to do a “sit-in” in the home or office of a person he disagrees with—and he does not acquire such a right by joining a gang. Rights are not a matter of numbers—and there can be no such thing, in law or in morality, as actions forbidden to an individual, but permitted to a mob.

      Why is Flipside, that I think of you as shal we say,,, severely intellectually challenged?

      • Flipside

        The commons does not belong to “a man.” Secondly, the commons is not the home office of a stockbroker. Thirdly, nowhere does it say “We the people in order to form a more perfect union do hereby cede the territory on which we assemble to a much smaller minority of owners.”

        • intrcptr2

          Seriously, Flip, just stop. Just sit down and spin some more raps; your grasp of civics hurts, even this far away.

          America got rid of her commons typically before the Revolution. Public parks do not qualify.
          No one has claimed that offices constitute commons.
          The Declaration of Independence in point of fact DOES enshrine the right of private property, implicitly, in the guise of happiness. Of course, the Declaration is not a legally binding document, but you may want to double check the Preamble.
          The method for creating a more perfect union is securing the blessings of liberty to [our] posterity; the Preamble has a three-part, inverted refrain. The Founders wrote nothing of your sort of politics because they accpeted as sensible and obvious that men owned what they worked or paid for.

          • Flipside

            America didn’t get rid of her commons.

    • intrcptr2

      What are you talkiing about?
      Zuccotti Park has been there since at least 1996, when I was playing chess there.

      Sorry to say, your grammar module fritzed out again. It is perfectly sensible for a "public" park to be privately owned. For example, if I own a piece of land, it is my prerogative to open it to be used by the public. Such a description is not self-contradictory.

      And you are correct, Americans never get their 1st Amendment rights taken away by government fiat. But that same document says nowhere that I must, by virtue of your standing on my property, be forced to let you stay. If it is my yard (Or to push your argument to its illogical conclusion) or my front porch, I have every right to evict you, or call the police to do it for me.

      What you say is up to you, where you say it is not exclusively.

      • Flipside

        Just because you played chess somewhere doesn’t make it a bastion of private ownership. Just ask Garry Kasparov.

  • Rifleman

    I seem to recall a few reporters getting roughed up by flea baggers.

  • Ghostwriter

    Well,I don't think freedom of the press in America is imperiled. It's just that many in the press have become cheerleaders for the Occupy Wall Street movement and don't report on it objectively.

  • Guest

    Tempest, meet teapot.

  • WilliamJamesWard

    What's to see at the OWS protests, same old same old commie wannabees looking
    to promote a personal rep and gain favor with the in crowd of new world revolutionaries.
    Yawn, bust up someone's property and declare themselves victors. Troublemakers
    was the term used years ago and they did not last long but in fact were taken to
    task by citizens and authorities alike and made to pay dearly for depredations.
    Demonstrating is OK but the filthy antics and damage being done is just a new
    round of hooliganism and in need of a hard boot………………………….William