Darrell Berkheimer: How our freedom of the press is violated
Were you among the readers who questioned how the U.S. could be ranked 17th in Freedom of the Press?
One reader wrote: “I can’t believe there are any countries that have more press freedom than we do.”
That 17th ranking was one of many U.S.-global rankings cited in my column of two weeks ago. It was one of the rankings issued in a January report by the World Audit organization.
But if you think that is a poor ranking for the U.S., then I’m sure you will have a more difficult time believing the ranking by Reporters Without Borders, who rated the U.S. 46th in press freedom in their 2014 report.
I’m wondering if the Reporters Without Borders ranking is so low because they feel they don’t get the same cooperation that our U.S. reporters receive.
I chose to report the more recent and much better 17th ranking, but both ratings prompted me to think about reasons why the U.S. is rated so poorly. And I listed about 10 reasons.
In making that list, I decided it should include anything that thwarts, delays or gives a one-sided slant to the information provided to the news media in their efforts to acquire and disseminate the accurate information that should be made available to the public.
With each decade, new buzzwords seem to develop. And with the administration of President Barrack Obama, the freedom of information buzzwords have been “lack of transparency.”
So that is the number one item on my list. It refers to the failures of our many forms of government — local, state and federal — to be more open with the information we all deserve to know about their activities. And my list cites examples of actions used to conceal, disguise or obscure such needed information.
On the federal level, we have become aware of the exorbitant use of “classified” listings to keep pertinent information from the public. I believe many readers have seen stories about “classified” items that posed absolutely no threat to our security — items apparently classified just to keep the information from the public.
Next, we have the threats of imprisonment or other retaliation against news media when representatives decline to reveal their sources. Several such national incidents have been in the news during recent years, including the imprisonment of one reporter.
But what we seldom learn about is how public officials — and sometimes big advertisers — occasionally are successful at pressuring a news outlet to delete, alter or slant information involved in a particular story. I have personally faced that situation several times during my three decades as a newspaper writer and editor. Those situations resulted in my leaving two different newspapers.
Too many journalists have faced such choices.
A related item on my list occurs when owners of news media apply pressure to kill, enhance or otherwise alter stories that include information that could be either detrimental or beneficial to their financial interests. That is a growing problem — just as we see more advocacy reporting in TV and radio programs purported to be news programs.
Also on the local level, various boards and commissions occasionally attempt to have illegal closed meetings to discuss controversial issues. They are successful sometimes with the bogus tactics of claiming the meeting was closed to discuss confidential personnel matters or litigation issues.
And how do we know when or if board members discuss and decide issues by telephone rather than at an open meeting — especially in this modern age of conference calls.
Fortunately, our nation has some diligent reporters who have become skilled at unraveling cover-ups — particularly by politicians and law enforcement agencies. Recent attempts at cover-ups have been reported within a few police agencies.
And when “whistle blowers” surface from governmental and corporate agencies, they face retaliation via legal harassment and other means including “blacklisting,” which was so endemic and successful during the McCarthyism era.
In addition, various agencies will develop a litany of excuses to delay action on Freedom of Information Act requests. Such responses have been delayed weeks, months, and even years in some cases.
And finally, we occasionally have a judicial ruling that subjugates the public’s right to know. Such is the case with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which provides for the hiding of influence-peddling contributions from the public.
But before leaving this issue, I think it is pertinent to name the other 16 nations whose freedoms of the press were ranked above the U.S. They are:
Tied for first – Sweden and Norway; tied for third – Finland, Netherlands and Belgium; sixth – Denmark; seventh – Switzerland; tied for eighth – Ireland and Estonia; tied for 10th – Costa Rica and Jamaica; tied for 12th – Canada, Germany and Portugal; 15th – New Zealand, and 16th Czech Republic.
I don’t know the criteria used by the World Audit organization in deciding those rankings; but I do know that those same countries tend to score high in other democracy issues. And I believe it’s for the same reason that I’ve emphasized in previous columns — because they tend to place their highest priority on the needs of their people.
When our nation’s lawmakers and regulators finally make nearly all their decisions based on that same top priority, then our freedom of the press ranking can be expected to improve as well.
Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a biweekly column published Saturdays by The Union. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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