Sometimes old journalists like myself feel for the Roman captives who called out to Emperor Claudius, “Ave Imperator, morituri te salutamus — Hail, Emperor, we who are about to die salute you.” Sometimes, though, a great scoop comes along to give our profession a stay of execution. It has just happened in Brazil, where disclosures published by The Intercept Brasil have severely wounded the country’s new political establishment. In case you missed it, reporting by Intercept journalists Andrew Fishman, Rafael Moro Martins, Leandro Demori, Glenn Greenwald and Amanda Audi has exposed Brazil’s much-vaunted anti-corruption investigation, “Operation Car Wash,” to accusations that it was, in large measure, a political tool used to rig last year’s presidential elections. For Brazil, it is Watergate times 10.
Internal documents and Telegram text messages acquired by The Intercept appear to demonstrate collusion among prosecutors to prevent former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from running in the election against Jair Bolsonaro and then to damage the campaign of his successor as Workers’ Party candidate, Fernando Haddad. This scoop came courtesy of a whistleblower who has put himself at risk in a country whose National Federation of Journalists recorded 135 acts of violence against journalists, including the murder of four, in 2018. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has documented the murders of 42 Brazilian journalists since 1992 and reports that Brazil’s Intercept staff “have received threats on email and social media following their publication of politically sensitive stories this month.” It takes a brave soul to provide evidence of official criminality to journalists not only in Brazil but in most of the world. The risks are murder, torture and imprisonment for the leaker as well as the journalist.
The End of the Story for Many Journalists
Many journalists are giving up. Jane Perlez wrote recently in The New York Times about Chinese investigative reporter Liu Wanyong’s decision to retire from the trade to which he had devoted the last 21 years of his life. The 48-year-old Liu first exposed bureaucratic malfeasance in 2005 when a conscientious police officer provided him with documents showing how a politician had arrested an innocent businessman for crimes committed by the politician himself. Liu’s story led to the businessman’s release and the politician’s conviction. That was then. With the consolidation of power under President Xi Jinping since 2016 has come total control of the media. Liu told Perlez that his paper, China Youth Daily, had suppressed more than 100 “juicy” stories since 2017. It was too much. “The core of being a journalist is that you need to love your job,” he said. There wasn’t much left for Liu to love. The same is true for many journalists outside of China.
The CPJ’s webpage records the latest assaults on journalists, a list that grows daily:
- Ugandan editor charged with criminal libel and “offensive communication.”
- Hong Kong police attack journalists with batons, tear gas amid protests.
- Radio journalist Libardo Montenegro killed in Narino, Colombia.
- Turkey charges Bloomberg reporters with undermining the economy.
And then there were the following incidents recorded by the Press Freedom Tracker:
- 14 journalists have faced physical attacks in 2019.
- Five journalists were killed in 2018.
- 46 journalists faced physical attacks in 2017.
- Since 2017, 48 reporters have been attacked while covering protests.
Which country did they happen in? Russia? Saudi Arabia? Iran? Nope. The United States, whose First Amendment made it a model for emerging democracies everywhere. That honorable legacy has suffered under prosecutions of journalists by both the administrations of Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump for violations of the Espionage Act of 1917, attacks by police and vigilantes alike, and publishers’ penchant for playing it safe to avoid litigation or offending advertisers.
The free press in America did not come cheap. Under the British, printers and editors were imprisoned on charges of sedition for exposing colonial governors’ chicanery. A jury in New York defied the orders of the judge in 1735 to convict the printer John Peter Zenger of defaming Gov. William Cosby with accusations, entirely true, of vote-rigging and other crimes. Whenever the press has uncovered the criminal behavior of the powerful, the powerful have pushed back hard. But the press had the First Amendment, and reporters — from Ida Tarbell exposing Standard Oil’s corrupt practices in 1902 to The New York Times and The Washington Post publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971 — relied on the courts to protect them. That didn’t stop an Arizona sheriff, Joe Arpaio, from arresting journalists who documented his violations of civil rights in 2007. Nor will it prevent further encroachments on what is most vital to the health of a democracy: the right of the governed to know what their governors are doing to them.
A Lost Past
Part of the problem is the demise of large and profitable newspapers in most American cities. They were like universities with departments for politics, international affairs, sports, theater, arts and everything else that the world had to offer. When I used to freelance for the Chicago Daily News in Beirut in the mid-1970s, I would make an annual pilgrimage to the head office, where I met a dazzling array of the finest journalists in what was America’s great newspaper town — Mike Royko, Rob Warden, Larry Greene, Bob Tamarkin and the cartoonist Herb Block. If I needed to know about anything — from Mayor Richard Daley’s eating habits to a scandal at the Lyric Opera to a tip on a horse running at Arlington Park — all I had to do was walk across the newsroom. Much of that is lost with staff reductions. Journalists who have lost their jobs in those collegial settings find themselves flung from the security of the university to the precarious existence of the mendicant scholar. They do good work as often as not, but they don’t have the resources to fight bogus criminal charges and spurious libel suits.
Let me indulge in a bit of slightly romanticized nostalgia and add one more lament: the disappearance of alcohol from journalism’s sanctums. When I worked at The Observer in London, drink as much as food defined lunch and helped build what any good coach would call “team spirit.” How many sources in Parliament would have kept silent if not for a few bottles of claret followed by cognac and cigars? That world nurtured legendary journalists — H.L. Mencken, Margaret Bourke-White, Martha Gellhorn, I.F. Stone and Seymour Hersh — and produced classic novels like Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning, not to mention great movies and plays like Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur’s “The Front Page,” Jack Webb’s “-30-,” the British “Front Page Story” and Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole.”
One line in “The Front Page” gives a hint of what’s lost. Editor Walter Burns, trying to persuade reporter Hildy Johnson not to abandon the paper to marry his fiancée and work in public relations, confesses, “Hildy, I was in love once — with my third wife.”
When Rome’s gladiators told Claudius they would die, he replied, “Aut non – or not.” If the public is willing to pay for and defend the free press, there may be life in the old profession yet.
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