The Professional Press and the Public Interest

For most of us there are moments that stand out . Having been a child right after WWII when prejudices were still raw, I can’t help but be sensitive to what could prevent anything like another holocaust. So it is perhaps to be expected that when a professor spoke about how to prevent future holocausts I listened and still remember his thoughts. Leo Kuper had been an associate of Nelson Mandela and when Mandela decided to go into the bush as a means to protect himself against encroaching South African authorities, Kuper who was also on the same list to be arrested, or banned, or imprisoned emigrated to the U.K. He made his life work how to bring about a peaceful end to Apartheid, and had done some study at a peace institute in Norway. He came back to tell my fellow graduate students and myself that key to preventing other holocausts and apartheids was an open system. An open system meant a court system that was open and a vigorous press. The press he said had a great role to play in ensuring the openness of any government. He went on to talk about the press not having written about concentration camps, partly because early 20th century press functioned differently, no TV news for example. But he said in a post-Watergate era, when the press was more aggressive, and what constituted the media more extensive, he thought it would be harder for governments to keep secret their engaging in large scale violations of human rights. Indeed it is difficult to keep violations hidden, certainly not for very long (our problem is not, not knowing, but not acting on what we know). What he was saying years ago is unfortunately relevant today for today’s media is vital to what stands between us and abuses of power. The professional media, print, broadcast and digital provide us with information we would otherwise not have. They have an increasingly difficult task between bosses who seek ratings and/or circulation, sources which would rather not divulge what they believe should be hidden and their duty to their profession and the public. And the professional press has still one more challenge, which is to distinguish itself from amateurs not only those with a given point of view or agenda but also those who would rather create stories rather than report on them. Far from being against the public interest, as some have suggested, the media is its ally, and in these times when alternative facts compete with facts it is a role that is essential if we want the US republic to remain an open system and if we want that system to not devolve into an undemocratic one.