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Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

Let Lots of Voices Ring

February 3, 2016

More than four decades ago, protest marches in Washington drew attention to growing public opposition to the War in Southeast Asia.  Looking back at those I attended, they were exuberant affairs with a serious purpose — pressuring President Richard Nixon to stop the seemingly never-ending conflict that killed more than 1.3 million civilians and members of the U.S. and non-U.S. military, drained billions from the American economy, undermined our country’s image abroad — and energized political activism at home.

Like the civil rights marches of the same era, those protests had a single major focus: ending the war.

In comparison, I was struck at the recent Women’s March at the state Capitol by the wide range of concern reflected by the diversity of issues heralded by signs — mostly handmade — among the 8,000 to 9,000 protestors.  Women’s rights.  Black Lives Matter.  The Flint water crisis.  Reproductive rights.  Health care.  LGBTQ rights.  Immigration.  Public education.  Science.  Peace.  Equal pay. 

The participants obviously had lots on their mind with a new administration in power, a GOP-dominated Congress, a Supreme Court vacancy on the cusp of being filled and another round of Michigan elections two years ahead.

Unsurprisingly given the rancor of the most recent election season, anti-Trump signs were evident too, but that’s nothing new for presidents.  Anti-Obama protests were marked –or marred — by such signs as “Obama-nomics: Monkey See, Monkey Spend!”  “Obama’s Plan: White Slavery” and “The Zoo Has an African (picture of lion) and the White House Has a Lyin’ African.” 

A day before the Women’s March, crowds gathered in Washington to watch and cheer as Donald Trump was inaugurated.

A week after the Women’s March came the 44th annual March for Life that drew a huge crowd of anti-abortion advocates to Washington, with Vice President Mike Pence as the headliner.  And a few days later across the country, protests erupted after the president imposed stringent restrictions on travel by immigrants and refugees, especially those from select predominantly Muslim countries.

As a journalist, I’ve witnessed a wide range of protests, marches and picket lines over the years: Union activists.  State workers.  Opponents of the motorcycle helmet law.  Teachers.  And more. 

Ain’t the First Amendment grand?  Social media, blogs and online petitions are all well and good — and, of course, constitutionally protected as well– but it was refreshing that so many millions of Americans chose to participate in those events.  It’s called public engagement and it’s essential to having a democracy in which active participation isn’t limited to voting in elections and making public comments at a city council meeting or legislative hearing.

Those who criticized any of those mass gatherings may need a reminder that “Congress shall make no law abridging…the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”  That means we have the right to protest on any side of any issue. 

I am disturbed by the arrests of on-the-job journalists who were just doing their job covering recent protests.  In North Dakota last fall, police arrested “Democracy America!” host Amy Goodman and documentary filmmaker Deia Schlosberg while they were covering anti-pipeline protests. Then in Washington, police swept up six journalists while they were covering violent protests a few blocks from the inaugural parade and charged them with felony rioting.  One of them, television journalist Alexander Rubinstein of RT America, explained after his arrest, “I am media and I am not a protester.” 

Missing from these marches and protests: Signs defending the role of the press.  The media is not the “opposition party,” contrary to presidential insistence.  And contrary to what administration officials propound, the press isn’t the opposition at all. Journalists’ “extreme vetting” of the new president, his Cabinet nominees and appointed staff is part of our watchdog responsibility, regardless of party.

The administration has placed “the media” firmly in its crosshairs, positioning it as a treasonous enemy hell-bent on destroying the Trump presidency and taking drastic measures to cut off government information from the citizenry directly and through the press.

In doing so, it is going beyond the anti-press attitude of the Obama administration, which New York Times reporter James Risen characterized in December as “the most anti-press administration since the Nixon administration.”  In 2015, for example, more than 50 journalism organizations asked Obama to end his excessive controls on public information.  Professional organizations also took aim at related anti-press practices such as prosecuting whistleblowers who leaked information to reporters and barring a Canadian photojournalist from entering the country to cover the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. 

Ain’t the First Amendment grand?

Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.

February 2, 2017 · Filed under Freedman



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