The slow death of freedom, democracy, and journalism


How about some fireworks to start just to cheer us up?

After a week in which Hobby Lobby made reshaping democracy a new form of conservative arts and craft activity, and residents in a small California town blocked innocent refugee families seeking safety, I worry for America.

And on its birthday, yet.

As we go to our picnics and barbecues over the long holiday weekend, I wonder if we haven’t tossed the Constitution itself on the grill.

It just seems that our view of a generous and expansive America has shrunk.

Instead, we fight to protect everything that we can grab and call our own. We’ve become far more selfish and self-interested. And if there were ever a notion of “the greater good,” it seems to have been redefined by people who believe instead in a “greater God.”

Theirs, not yours.

And isn’t that why the founders left the mother country in the first place?

To build a nation that would be a sanctuary of freedom and liberty?

Of course it was. But tell that to Americans who have become so distrustful of their institutions. A recent Gallup Poll showed that Americans have more confidence in the military, police, and organized religion than in any elected government officials. (Congress, by the way, is at the bottom of the list.)

Journalists? We were above Congress, but not by much.

Talk about crisis in confidence.


As a journalist, I definitely know things have changed.

It’s journalism conference season, and the first out of the box this year was held by the group known as IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).

If you want to see how badly we’ve back-slided in terms of freedoms, particularly the First Amendment, just look at how reporters and their sources are treated today.

Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange? Whistleblowers and leakers are on the run. And for many, they are considered traitors, not heroes.

Meanwhile, James Risen of the New York Times is facing jail for his story on a bungled CIA operation in Iran, and, some believe, for being the first to break the story of the NSA’s surveillance of Americans.

Lowell Bergman, the famed investigative reporter on whom the movie “The Insider” was based, delivered a keynote address before a conference of 1,600 journalists that was bold in its frankness.


“We have to talk about the illusion we have gone along with in the past six to seven years,” Bergman said. That in some way the Bush/Gonzales years were bad years for journalism… when in fact Barack Obama and Eric Holder are not our friends.”

It was the first vigorous ovation Bergman received that day.

The administration isn’t a friend of journalists and the public’s right to know, and neither is the Supreme Court, according to Bergman, who pointed out how different things were today.

Bergman said that fifty years ago in New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court, with a Republican leading the way in a 9-0 decision, gave real backing to reporters.

“It meant you can report on a public figure without fear of being dragged into court and have to prove factually to the standards of the court that what you report is in fact true,” said Bergman.

He also pointed out that Sullivan didn’t involve a story, but an advertisement in the New York Times taken out by a civil rights organization.

“And we [journalists] profited from that,” he said. “And I think it’s important to remember, we don’t have the civil rights movement anymore.”

Surely, it’s not the same as when the Civil Rights Act was signed into law 50 years ago this week.

Nor do we have an antiwar movement uncovering government secrets, such as Daniel Ellsberg, who copied the Pentagon Papers and was at the IRE conference.

Bergman believes we must do more to protect journalistic sources.

But his message to journalists was that we need to be much more supportive of each other–and most especially at this moment for James Risen.

“What James Risen has done is an act of civil disobedience,” said Bergman. “His hand is more powerful if you say you’re James Risen. If you see where he is, if you stand for him. Where are you on this matter?”

The crowd of journos leapt to its feet and applauded.

Later when I talked to Bergman, he humbly joked that it was an easy ploy for a standing ovation.

But it was false modesty. He didn’t need it. His speech has stayed with me long after the convention and well into the holiday.

Especially when he said the only people who were the real allies of journalists were the pro bono lawyers.

As a journalist who writes for the AALDEF blog, that certainly rang true to me.


Bergman’s speech was a reminder how necessary journalists are in maintaining the information we all need to be free. He mentioned the reporters who have died in America since the mid-’80s. They weren’t reporters for big dailies like the Times. They were ethnic reporters like Henry Liu of Daly City, Calif.

I didn’t know Liu. But I did know another reporter Bergman mentioned: Chauncey Bailey, an African American reporter for the Oakland Post, a black ethnic newspaper.

Bailey was investigating criminal activity by a group in Oakland that used a Muslim bakery as its front.

In August, 2007, Bailey became the most recent reporter assassinated in America.

The conference featured a panel on the project that was started to complete the work of Bailey. In all, there were eight murders connected to the story; only three, including Chauncey’s, have been solved.

Bob Butler, the president of the National Association of Black Journalists, said that the only reason Chauncey’s case wasn’t given more national coverage was purely due to racism. Black community, black reporter.

And yet, Chauncey had an important story to tell the public. And it cost him his life.

“If they could kill Chauncey,” Butler said, “they could kill anybody.”

I always considered Chauncey to be one of the good guys. IRE is made up of all types. 

Some are the blowhard I-Team types from TV. But most are humble scribes interested in journalism in the public interest. Voices of the voiceless, right?

And som etimes that includes people of color.

As I left the hotel on my final day at the conference, I heard a voice say my name.

“Emil Guillermo?”

I turned. It was a Filipino immigrant, a man who had seen me on TV news in the Bay Area and in the ethnic press.

“Welcome to the hotel,” the man said. He was in uniform. A hotel worker, like many of my relatives have been. “Thank you for being here. We hope you’re enjoying your stay.”

He thought he was serving me.

But really it’s always been the other way around.

In the ethnic media, I was in service to him. We may be in the margins at times. But we’re no less part of this great democracy.

July 4th is our reminder of that.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.
The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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