To celebrate the publication of Project Censored's State of the Free Press | 2022, we are proud to share an excerpt from Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth's introduction to the book, which Noam Chomsky describes as "a crucial contribution to the hope for a more just and democratic society." In this passage, the authors caution against nostalgia for pre-pandemic news coverage, while also providing a roadmap for a more robust free press.
Remedies for a More Robust Free Press
The past year has made it clear that access to accurate, trustworthy news can be a matter of life or death, as indicated by reporting on the pandemic (see, e.g., story #13 in Chapter 1) as well as the claims of election fraud, promoted by Donald Trump, QAnon, and others, which precipitated the January 6th Capitol riot that left five dead and more than one hundred people injured (see Chapter 4).
When we hear calls for a return to normalcy, we need to ask, “Return to what?” and “Whose ‘normal’?” Do we yearn for a return to neoliberal, top-down control with widening wealth gaps, social unrest, continued destruction of the environment, and divisive media and propaganda? Or do we want a genuinely new normal based on democratic principles of inclusion and equality, both of which require a vigilant and truly free press?
Decades ago, when there were only three major television networks, America’s top journalists used to sign off their broadcasts with statements that did little to encourage critical analysis of the day’s news and how the networks reported it. In the 1950s, pioneering CBS anchor Edward R. Murrow ended his broadcasts by wishing his audience “good night, and good luck.” A generation later, CBS’s Walter Cronkite regularly signed off by asserting, “And that’s the way it is.” Given the challenges enumerated in this introduction, we need more than salutary phrases that promote passive acceptance of what passes for the news. We need the perspective and the tools to ask of our news sources, “Is that the way it is?”
It is a genuine challenge to convince people to consider news they are disinclined to trust for ideological reasons, even when such reporting is based on well-founded evidence. To foster that attitude toward news, we need critical media literacy education and a more robust and diverse independent press committed to journalistic ethics and reporting in the public interest.
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) reminds us that journalists should seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent. As Danielle McLean, chair of the SPJ’s Ethics Committee, notes in the foreword to this volume, “We need to stop chasing ratings and meaningless clickbait headlines, stop treating politics like celebrity gossip and elections like popularity polls, demand change from the corporate boards and hedge funds that run news outlets without caring about the free press, and turn our focus toward the kind of journalism that our society deserves.” But McLean’s suggested remedy for today’s media malaise goes further, noting, “At their best, journalism and those who practice it have kept the powerful honest, held elected officials accountable for their actions and abuses of power, and revealed the complex causes of and solutions for societal ills such as poverty, housing insecurity, inequality, and public health crises.”
In the same spirit, Ralph Nader, who warned against the threats posed by the Telecommunications Act back in 1996, continues to fight for press freedoms and investigative reporting in the public interest, most recently with his initiative Reporters’ Alert: Fresh Ideas for Journalists, which provides working leads for journalists by highlighting underreported news stories. Other long-standing organizations such as the Freedom of the Press
Foundation support bold reporting by offering guides and training on security and privacy risks, knowledge crucial to the protection of journalists in dangerous times. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s project on Surveillance Self-Defense goes still further, supplying practical tools to promote as much security as possible for online communications. A truly free press is only possible when journalists and sources are free from the threat of violence, arrest, surveillance, or retaliation from the people and institutions they scrutinize, making safety and privacy no less paramount to healthy media than the truthfulness and substantiality of the stories reported.
A further important step toward reviving trust in news media would be the creation of a nonprofit, publicly funded media system, reframing journalism as a public utility and promoting it as a common good, rather than a societal luxury that only matters to select subgroups of the public. Such a step would necessarily entail confronting widespread prejudices against journalism. As Victor Pickard and Timothy Neff noted in a June 2021 Columbia Journalism Review article, although Americans seem united in the belief that “democracy requires a free and functional press,” they don’t seem interested in funding it. Pickard and Neff observed how anemic financial support for news media is in the United States compared with other major democratic countries, noting that “if the US spent just 0.02 percent of its GDP, it would generate $4.5 billion for public media infrastructure that could serve local communities’ information needs.” Getting newsrooms out from under the management of hedge funds, tech billionaires, and other corporate conglomerates and into the hands of citizen-activists providing oversight for the proper reporting and representation of crucial community issues would be game-changing to the practice and consumption of journalism, promoting real trust and engagement in news through the active participation of the people it serves.
Finally, we need to accelerate efforts to teach critical media literacy to all Americans, from early education into adulthood. The work of organizations such as the Critical Media Project, the Propwatch Project, and Project Censored provide crucial resources to achieve this goal; but, as with Pickard and Neff ’s vital proposals for public media funding, supporting critical media literacy education at a national scale requires substantial financial support, independent of corporate sources that would inevitably compromise its critical rigor.
The importance of free speech and expression embodied in a free press protected by the First Amendment are foundational to democracy and our entire way of life. We deviate from them at our peril. In our push to return to normalcy, we must seriously deliberate over what freedom of expression really looks and sounds like in practice, which currently existing institutions provide for it, and how we can transform the ones that don’t. As journalism is under threat from corporate consolidation, Big Tech censorship, governmental surveillance, police violence, and distrust from a divided public, it is up to us to stand up for reporting that matters, to protest against hyper-partisan misrepresentation and untruths, to demand de-monopolization, regulation, and security for our communication platforms, to envision new systems to support the news media we need, and to fight back against unjust and oppressive measures that privilege the powerful while spying on and punishing watchdogs, whistleblowers, and truth-tellers.
Business as usual won’t save journalism, just as clickbait and skewed stories won’t suffice to heal the wounds of the pandemic or the impoverishment and neglect that led to it hitting some of us so unequally and so hard. The future of journalism depends upon our active engagement as citizens, no less than the future of democracy depends upon a truly independent, ethical, and uncompromising free press — reporting not for the profits of the few, but selflessly in the true interest of the undivided public.
—Mickey Huff, Fair Oaks, CA Andy Lee Roth, Winthrop, WA
32. Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff, “Ripe for Fascism: A Post-Coup d’Trump Autopsy of American Democracy,” CounterPunch, January 14, 2021.
33. See, e.g., Steve Macek and Andy Lee Roth, “It’s True That Corporate Media is Biased—But Not in the Ways Right-Wingers Say,” Truthout, November 27, 2020.
34. “SPJ Code of Ethics,” Society of Professional Journalists, September 6, 2014.
36. “Guides & Training,” Freedom of the Press Foundation, undated [accessed June 15, 2021].
37. “Surveillance Self-Defense,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, undated [accessed June 15, 2021].
38. Victor Pickard and Timothy Neff, “Strengthen Our Democracy by Funding Public Media,” Columbia Journalism Review, June 2, 2021. For more on the case for public journalism, see Veronica Vasquez and Mickey Huff, “Revive Journalism with a Stimulus Package and Public Option,” in State of the Free Press 2021, eds. Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth with Project Censored (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2020), 62–65.