Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the mob assault on the US Capitol. That its nature and provenance remain subjects of debate is a symptom of the deep division in the American electorate. That President Trump empowered the mob by refusing to accept the results of the election and perpetrating the lie that the election was stolen speaks to his character and the loyalty and gullibility of his followers.
The antidote to this Big Lie is education, accountability, and rigorous investigative reporting. Thanks to a fearless, on the spot, dedicated group of journalists and photographers we were able to see the events unfold. Americans saw live coverage of that violent assault. We watched as the mob knocked down barriers, rushed up the steps, broke windows and doors, stormed into the House and Senate chambers, ransacked offices, erected a gallows, threatened to kill Vice-President Pence, and injured more than 140 law enforcement personnel. Nevertheless, there are those who, to this day, are trying to convince us that what we saw was not what we saw.
Despite a lack of cooperation from Republicans, a bipartisan Congressional investigation is underway into its origins. Trump partisans continue their widespread effort to keep those responsible from being held accountable. If not for the words and pictures of the Fourth Estate, we might never have known the magnitude, carnage, and sequence of that violent attack.
But this story is more about journalism than the events described above, although those events exemplify the importance of journalism and the courage and integrity of its practitioners. Every day, reporters and photographers roam the world and report back to us on everything from climate change and genocide to financial corruption and drug cartels. The world is a dangerous place, and journalists put themselves at risk to tell us about it. According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), 45 journalists were killed while doing their jobs in 2021 – 50% more than in the previous year.
Three years ago, M and I spent an entire day at the Newseum in Washington D.C., and on this date two years ago, I shared my dismay at its closing. The Newseum was a private institution in Washington D.C. Established by the Freedom Forum, a 501(c)(3) public charity. For 22 years, it educated visitors about the five freedoms of the First Amendment and the importance of a free and fair press. Unfortunately, it was unable to compete with the free museums on the Washington Mall, and closed its doors on December 31, 2019.
It’s an understatement to say I’m disappointed that the Newseum was forced to close. We need, and journalists deserve, a space to honor the profession and celebrate its mission. There is an effort underway to find another site, but it will be difficult to find one as central and appropriate as the one on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was hard to miss the symbolism of that location, with the White House at one end of the street and the Capitol on the other.
Its mission was to educate the public but also honor journalism and journalists worldwide. The tragic deaths of 75 international journalists and photographers in the last two years reminds me how dangerous the profession can be. The Journalists Memorial, in the main hall, was the most striking reminder. Covering a floor to ceiling wall, it was composed of 2344 photographs of reporters, photographers, and broadcasters who died reporting the news. It spoke dramatically of the courage, responsibility, and danger associated with the profession.
I recently noted the number of women reporters reporting from dangerous places. Clarissa Ward (British), Holly Williams (Australian), Christiane Amanpour (British-Iranian), Debra Patta (South African) and Marie Colvin (American) who died in 2012 covering the Syrian war. We see them on the nightly news reporting stories from Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Eritrea, Iran, and Gaza. They are not hiding behind men. They’re out front talking to soldiers, victims, insurgents, and warlords. In countries where women are second class citizens, they’re on the front lines with battle gear, hijabs, or burqas challenging those they interview.
The Fourth Estate is vital and active but under attack – and not just from the right. The way we receive the news is changing. More than 1 in 5 newspapers have closed since 2004. Newspapers can’t compete with Breaking News on television and the Internet. Traditional news sources are losing ground to opinion-based cable channels like Fox News. Investigative reporters are fact checked to insure the accuracy of their stories, but news consumers are finding it difficult to distinguish reliable sources of information. Facebook is not a new organization, but the Pew Research Center reports that 36% of Americans get their news there.
The Fourth Estate delivers the news. It monitors, investigates, and reports back on the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. It is society’s conscience, the guardrail that keeps government from overstepping its bounds and its officials accountable… especially in troubling times like these. We should all remember this tomorrow on the anniversary of that near fatal attack on democracy.