This article is adapted from a speech delivered on Thursday night at the annual dinner of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.
Every day, journalists go to press with stories that could endanger them and their families, understanding that the repercussions might be severe, even a matter of life and death. They are the sentries protecting the values of truth, accountability, and justice.
These values are under attack. In an age of growing authoritarianism and repression of freedom and democracy, the very notion of facts and fairness is being called into question.
That those who cloak themselves in intolerance, nationalism, and corruption would attack the press is to be expected. This has long been the playbook of despots. It is not a coincidence that the Founders established a free press in the very first amendment to the Constitution. They knew tyranny. And they understood that an independent press is an essential counterbalance to those who abuse power.
We see this counterbalance in action today, both here in the United States and around the world. Through the dedication and courage of journalists, malfeasance is exposed and lies are revealed. In return, they endure attacks on their credibility and their patriotism. Epithets such as fake news and enemy of the people are commonplace.
Much of that is in response to reporting on those with power, political or otherwise. But, of course, journalists do much more. They seek out the voices that all too often go unheard—the marginalized, the oppressed, the dispossessed. They provide context to complicated narratives. They inform, enlighten, and entertain. They allow for shared moments of levity and empathy. They head out into a difficult and complicated world, and tell us stories that allow us to learn, to make informed decisions at the ballot box, and to remain smartly engaged in civic life.
When I was growing up in West Milford, New Jersey, almost every family I knew had the local paper delivered in the morning—an enterprise fueled by children like myself and my three brothers. That job was more than a way to earn some extra money. We were part of a pattern of American life, a democratic routine, in which journalism was an instrument of enlightenment and sometimes even troublemaking. Good troublemaking.
This belief has only deepened for us at Emerson Collective. Through our work in education, immigration, voting rights, and the environment, we understand how vital journalism is to a just society. There can be no progress without the information to advance it, no sense of shared community or values without the stories that bind us together.
At the same time, we are experiencing a fundamental change in the way that people are consuming journalism—traditional business models have been buffeted by the digital revolution. As a result, scores of local newspapers have closed. Long-form and investigative journalism is underfunded. Too much of what takes place in the corridors of power is left uncovered because of a lack of resources.
There have been some positive developments, too: The voices reporting the news are more diverse than when I was growing up, and journalists are developing exciting new approaches to creative and responsible storytelling.
But these fruits of innovation must be allowed to flourish without interference by government and greed. At Emerson Collective, we recognized that we could play a part, and encourage others to follow. It has become one of the great privileges of my life to be associated with the brilliant journalists at The Atlantic, and the extraordinary teams at ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, the Marshall Project, the American Journalism Project, and many other outlets.
Journalism has traditionally been a competitive business—I know that journalists like nothing more than a good scoop. And friendly competition drives a lot of great reporting. But here’s what the enemies of a free press don’t understand. While we might work for different news organizations, speak different languages, and live in different countries, to be part of this endeavor is to be part of a community and a cause larger than ourselves. If you are a reporter and you are in danger, we have your back. You are not alone. You will not be forgotten.
We cannot afford to underestimate the ruthlessness and treachery of those who would undermine our free press. But we also must not underestimate our own collective strength. I am filled with confidence not only in the justice of our pursuit, but also in its future. The resolve and the determination that are hallmarks of great journalism will carry us through. In a struggle for the soul of this nation, in a battle for justice around the world, I am honored to be on the side of those who are fighting for the truth.
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