Racism, Freedom of the Press and Our Unbridled Blindness

Posted on 12-03-2015 by
Tags: freedom of press , Top Stories , 1st Amendment

There was this freedom-curdling headline in my local newspaper:

Smith College defends decision to restrict media at student sit-in

November was a tough month for press freedoms and protests against racism. The assumed harmony between protest message and press dissemination was proven fictional. At the Smith College protest, the press restriction boiled down to the media as friend or foe. Journalists were welcome only if they supported the protestors. As one person put it:

By taking a neutral stance, journalists and media are being complacent in our fight.

And before Smith College, there was the University of Missouri. They had their “I need some muscle” moment. The tone shouldn’t be taken lightly as muscle begets force, and force begets violence. Journalism shouldn’t be a violent venue, especially in America. Asking for muscle is a cousin (though very distant) to other assaults on the press, namely prison and murder.

In the wake of these events, I offer a reminder about the freedom of press. As Albert Camus, in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, put it:

A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad. … With freedom of the press, nations are not sure of going toward justice and peace. But without it, they are sure of not going there.

Yes to Protests

Don’t mistake my pro-freedom for anti-protest. Racism is very much alive. Over at Harvard, somebody recently defaced the portraits of black faculty. But that’s only an instance … I’m talking “racism alive” in the fabric of our lives, society, country.

Some don’t see it this way. To them, Martin Luther King, Jr. was corrective medicine.

Pre-MLK … racism.

Post-MLK … racism cured.

It’s a lazy perspective, to think that with one brushstroke, all the years of prejudice and racism were cleaned up. The timeline blinds us. For all of us born after 1968, we sit on the safe side of the timeline. On the opposite side of the hash mark, the one that marks MLK’s life and death, that’s where racism lives (or lived). Racism lived in segregated busses, schools, and professional baseball. Our side of the hash mark has us looking through rose-colored glasses - it’s all sunshine and lollipops. We’ve had our medicine. We’re cured. Everything’s A-Okay.

Everything isn’t A-Okay. We need to step over the hash mark, back into the past, when racism and whitewashing were more obvious. I took this step purely by accident. It sounds sophomoric, it sounds trite, but my glimpse came via Chris Lamb, who authored a book about baseball, segregation and sports writing.

You can call me naïve, but let me clarify - I’m not claiming books substitute for experience. Reading about segregation and racism isn’t living them; however, a book, like Lamb’s Conspiracy of Silence, can change your perspective and your point of view. I could give you an in-depth book review, but that’s for the classroom. My point: rarely have I turned around and looked back … I’ve spent too much time looking forward, pretending the world’s peachy keen. 

But the world isn’t. We’re not even 70 years removed from the terrible racism that divided America and guaranteed baseball’s segregation. Forgetting this (or ignoring it) is a comfortable blindness. It’s like sticking your head in a toilet and only seeing crystal-clear water. 

Yes to Press Freedoms

In Conspiracy of Silence (in brief), Lamb unravels the press’ impact on baseball’s desegregation. Set mostly in the ’30s and ‘40s, it’s a good-bad contrast between African-American sportswriters and white sports writers (most of them). And then there’s the Communists and their newspaper, the Daily Worker, which drew its pen and battled vigorously for baseball’s desegregation. This is the freedom of the press … the good, the bad and the ugly.

Lamb’s chronicle is a history of racism in the white press, but also, it’s a history of the 1st Amendment. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, African-American sports writers churned out commentary and badgered baseball (literally and figuratively), using freedom of the press like a chisel against stone. Through the lens of baseball, the freedom of press is painted as both imperfect and powerful. It’s a good lesson on our imperfect freedoms. A freedom’s power should not wane merely because of imperfection.

As with the history of racism, the freedom of press has a long history too … one that we also forget. Recently, we celebrated the 341st anniversary of John Milton’s Areopagitica, which was published November 23, 1644, at a time when publications required pre-approval and licensing. In Areopagitica, Milton championed the freedom of press. He said:

If we think to regulate Printing, thereby to rectify manners, we must regulate all recreations and pastimes, all that is delightful to man. No music must be heard, no song be set or sung …. Who shall regulate all the mixed conversation of our youth, male and female together, as is the fashion of this Country ….

A century later, England’s Stamp Act criminalized American newspapers and pamphlets unless printed on specially stamped paper. John Adams branded this an infringement of the colonists’ rights. In defending the free flow of information, Adams said:

And you, Messieurs printers, whatever the tyrants of the earth may say of your paper, have done important service to your country by your readiness and freedom in publishing the speculations of the curious. … [T]he jaws of power are always opened to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.

What does all this mean?

It means that without the proper perspective or context, the freedom of press, like racism, appears transparent and nebulous. It has no organs, no life blood, no thickness, no weight. You think you see it, but you don’t. It’s just three words … “freedom of press” … no struggle behind it, no injustice conquered, no lives lost for its sake. It’s weightless like air and easily dislodged.

Press & Protest: The Two Must Go Hand-In-Hand

Racism didn’t end with Martin Luther King, Jr. Stop envisioning cosmic scissors - their great “snip” in the ‘60s, racism's severed cord tumbling away. The cord of racism is still connected. It runs continuous … from the 1700s, through the ‘30s and ‘40s, up till today. The sad truth: we’re blind to our history, and this historical blindness is the contagion of our present blindness.

But the same blindness is true for the freedom of press. Looking into the headwinds of social change doesn’t mean turning our backs on this hard fought freedom. Yes, championing justice is a noble cause. But championing justice while stepping on freedom - that’s a stone’s throw away from tyranny. 

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