By now, you’ve doubtlessly caught up on all the hullabaloo that went down in Ferguson, Mo. in August. But just in case you’ve somehow unplugged from the entire universe for a month, in a nutshell: Local white police officer Darren Wilson shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. And then a lot of other things happened.
While there’s no doubt that a national dialogue promptly ensued — and continues — around what it means to be living in a supposedly “post-racial” America, there’s nothing I’m going to add to the debate in 500 words adorning the margins of a community magazine based in a town more than 850 miles away. I’m a narcissist, but not a fool. But something else occurred during the protests that shook the Missouri town following Brown’s tragic demise that I think also deserves further discussion, but hasn’t been visited with the same national fervor. And that’s the destruction of the Fourth Estate.
We saw it happen several times as events unfolded in Missouri, from the cordoning of reporters’ movements to restricted areas, all the way to physical threats and even incarceration. More than a dozen reporters were arrested while they were doing their jobs. And lest anyone forget what that job is, here’s a reminder:
“The last right we shall mention regards the freedom of the press. The importance of this consists, besides the advancement of truth, science, morality, and arts in general, in its diffusion of liberal sentiments on the administration of Government, its ready communication of thoughts between subjects, and its consequential promotion of union among them, whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated into more honorable and just modes of conducting affairs.”
That’s an excerpt from a letter sent to the people of Quebec from the First Continental Congress of 1774 — as the United States prepared its Constitution and readied for the Revolutionary War. It’s ironic that in the most digitally connected era in the history of mankind — where collecting, writing, recording filming and publishing accounts of any occurrence can happen with a single device held in the palm of your hand — authorities were so successful at trampling the right of journalists in the field.
Carried out to its natural conclusion, in a society that chooses to inhibit the free and unfettered dissemination of information … well, you see what’s going on in the Middle East. And no, I’m not talking about the flare-up in Gaza earlier this summer. That conflict garnered more than 22 million mentions, according to Google News. In the first 30 days. It’s been exceptionally well-covered.
Meanwhile, the civil war in Syria has resulted in 99% more deaths, ensued for several years, and yet returns less than .01% of Google News mentions compared to the Gaza conflict. The loss of life is staggering — nearing 200,000 people — and is punctuated, perhaps most tellingly, by the video taped beheading of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
That image should haunt all of us for the rest of our lives and remind us just how important a job we’ve been charged with. Shining a light on the darkest corners of the human condition is the only way we’ll ever be able to lift it up.