The battle between a free press and the State has been ongoing since the first days of the printing press. The notion that the citizenry could keep tabs on officials and report back to their respective communities revolutionized the master/servant relationship. For once the people were not doomed to remain ignorant while politicians, and royalty robbed them blind and deaf. Awareness was allowed to grow and swell until bursting into a new era of an informed, educated, and active populace.
This development, however, was not viewed fondly by the established ruling class around the globe. Some States completely destroyed the idea of a free press by merging the government with the media. Others simply worked with corporations to monopolize and direct the information reported on by the media. Beyond media manipulation the free press has also been subject to more direct attacks on journalists, and news organizations.
Local Journalism Under Attack
In my personal pursuit of information as an independent journalist I have met resistance and closed doors as a result of asking tough questions. Recently I have been dealing with a firsthand account of the attack on and narrowing of the definition of journalism.
Over the past 4 years as an activist with the Houston Free Thinkers (HFT)I have veered more and more into the role of journalist, occasionally wearing both hats at the same time. For example, I will attend a protest or rally that I helped plan with the HFT, and later report on the action in an article for Activist Post, or another media outlet I write for. This distinction between activist, and journalist is a blurred one and ultimately unnecessary, as all free humans in the United States are guaranteed freedom of the press, as noted in (but not granted by) the Constitution.
In April 2013 HFT was leaked emails and an image confirming that the Houston Police Department was monitoring our activities. We investigated the matter by attending City Council meetings, calling the Mayor’s Office, and emailing council members. I even attempted to interview the Mayor regarding the issue (and others) but she ran away from my questions.
Eventually we found out about monthly press sessions held by the Houston Police Department with Chief Charles McClelland. These sessions seemed like the perfect venue for us to ask why peaceful activist groups were being monitored by the police. When I inquired about the sessions I was asked what press outlet I worked for. My first reaction was to spout out the radio stations, and news organizations I write and report for. Eventually I was told by an HPD Public Information Officer (PIO) that only “mainstream media” were allowed into the sessions. I was told this was defined as “major radio and television stations”.
Upon hearing this I returned back to City Council to question the Mayor and council further. As you see in the video below I was told that the City Council would look into the matter and to email the Mayor’s Director of Communications/Policy for special “permission” to attend the sessions.
With the Mayoral elections and holidays approaching we left the situation alone and decided to renew our efforts to not only find out why taxpayer dollars were being wasted monitoring our community but also whether the city could legally keep independent media out. As of January 6th, 2014 we relaunched our campaign. I called Janice requesting clarity on the issue and a decision on whether or not I would be allowed to attend the press meeting.
Janice offered a number of excuses on why I did not qualify for attendance of this press session, including non-corporate advertising on websites, accepting funding from viewers/listeners, and a host of other reasons why I am not allowed. Eventually Janice stated what I believe is the real reason I am being barred. She said “If we let you in we will have to let in 200 other independent journalists”. Once again the establishment is worried about being unable to tightly control the narrative and the questions asked to authority figures.
After hanging up the phone I talked with other members of the Houston Free Thinkers and we realized that this issue was about much more than Derrick Broze the journalist; it was dealing with the freedom of the press established in the Constitution and endowed to all free individuals. So in defense of freedom of press in our city we organized a week long phonebomb and email blast of the Mayor’s Offices, Council members, and Janice. A few days into the campaign one of our supporters received this message from Janice:
There is a difference between journalism and community activism. Mr. Broze and Houston Free Thinkers are activists.
This is confirmed in this interview here:
Quite honestly, the phone calls and emails like yours and from others that I’ve received since my last conversation with Mr. Broze also confirm that Houston Free Thinkers is an activist group. I was a reporter for 20 years and I’ve worked in media relations for 11. Never did I or has any other reporter I’ve dealt with launched this type of campaign. It is not a sign of independent journalism, but rather an indication of activism on behalf of a cause. The media briefings are to brief reporters who cover HPD on a regular basis, not to provide a venue for this type of activity. There is a place for that, but it is not at a media briefing.
After we ended our phone and email campaign I decided to send one more email, clarifying my ability to be both a journalist AND an activist. I neatly laid out my position that journalist, or not all free people of the City of Houston should have access to public officials like the Chief of Police. I offered all my press credentials as well. Here was the response from Janice Evans:
Based on the campaign you launched after our conversation and the video clips I’ve found online, I have determined that this is advocacy and activism, not unbiased journalism. As I noted in my emails to several of those who contacted me, I was a reporter for 20 years and I’ve been handling media relations for 11. I, myself, never launched such as a campaign as a reporter and I’ve not encountered other reporters who have done it. I, myself, was very careful as a reporter to not take sides in an issue or controversy and never advocated for one group or another. With regard to the acceptance of advertising, you note in your email below that your group accepts donations from those who directly benefit from their programming. Again, this is advocacy. Based on last week’s display, I have concluded my review and my decision is final.
I have spoken with Ben Swann, and other friends in media about this treatment. Currently I am seeking legal advice and weighing pursuing action against the City in violation of the freedom of the press.
Advocacy or Journalism
Currently journalist Barrett Brown is on trial for the “crime” of hyperlinking to hacked files from the private intelligence firm Stratfor. The files were hacked by Jeremy Hammond, recently sentenced to ten years behind bars, and then written about by Brown. During the trial Brown’s status as journalist or advocate/activist has been called into question. Brown has long been a vocal supporter of the Anonymous hacker collective while simultaneously reporting on their activities. The Huffington Post commented:
Ultimately it’s other voices like Barrett’s, without institutional backing or adequate shield law as protection, who are most at risk. Supporting digital security for journalists is one way forward.
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Another question raised at his trial could be the false distinction between journalism and activism, or the legitimacy of “advocacy journalism.” This is a crucial debate, but most have long recognized that standards of so-called journalistic objectivity are a joke. Before the 20th century, almost all journalists were partisan, and they were expected to be. Embedding oneself inside a worldwide movement for transparency without even the advantage of a mask, Barrett sensed where the action and the story lay, and decided to become a part of it. His experience told him that the Internet combined with a decentralized collective would be a powerful tool for political change, capable of challenging state and corporate concerns and reshaping the media landscape. His treatment, which is indicative of the perceived threat by those in power, shows that he was onto something.
Wikipedia defines Advocacy Journalism as “a genre of journalism that intentionally and transparently adopts a non-objective viewpoint, usually for some social or political purpose. Because it is intended to be factual, it is distinguished from propaganda. It is also distinct from instances of media bias and failures of objectivity in media outlets, since the bias is intended.”
The post continues, “Some advocacy journalists reject that the traditional ideal of objectivity is possible in practice, either generally, or due to the presence of corporate sponsors in advertising. Some feel that the public interest is better served by a diversity of media outlets with a variety of transparent points of view, or that advocacy journalism serves a similar role to muckrakers or whistleblowers.”
The Federal Attack on Free Media
Both mine and Barrett Brown’s treatment are indicative of an attitude that begins locally and continues up to the federal level. Last year the Free Flow of Information Act was reintroduced to “maintain the free flow of information to the public by providing conditions for the federally compelled disclosure of information by certain persons connected with the news media.”
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Senator Dianne Feinstein insisted that she would not support the bill if protections were offered beyond “covered journalists”. According to Feinstein, and the bill in its current form, a journalist is “someone who is an employee, agent, or independent contractor for a media entity.” In the video below Feinstein asks whether or not “a 17-year-old who drops out of high school, buys a website for $5, and starts a blog” should be protected.
Senator Feinstein also fought against protection for Edward Snowden, Wikileaks, and future whistleblowers. The bill passed through the Committee but currently is sitting still waiting to be approved further. While that bill may not survive the public backlash, it is interesting to note that the original reason the bill was brought up in May 2013 was in response to the White House/Associated Press scandal.
It was revealed that the Department of Justice had secretly gathered two months of phone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press. The Justice Department had records of outgoing work and personal phone calls for reporters in New York, Washington, and Hartford, Connecticut from more than 20 phone lines. The Justice Department was apparently looking for the source of an AP story that leaked details of a CIA operation in Yemen.
Later in 2013 a number of media organizations began rebelling against the Obama Administration
restrictions that sometimes keep journalists from taking pictures and video of President Obama performing official duties. The Presidents of the American Society of News Editors and the Associated Press Media Editors told their members to stop using the photos and videos the White House gives out, and that they say amounts to little more than propaganda. Press Secretary Jay Carney met with the organizations in December to discuss the issues. Although Carney downplayed the lack of transparency press officials state that these practices have not been the standard with other administrations.
In October 2013 the Committee to Project Journalists released a study detailing that reporters from a number of mainstream outlets believe the Obama administration to be the most secretive in recent memory. This sentiment was echoed last week by New York Times editor Jill Abramson. Speaking to AlJazeera Abramson said, “This is the most secretive White House that, at least as a journalist, I have ever dealt with.” The Press Secretary denied the secrecy was anything more than typical press and White House back and forth.
Michael Hastings’ Legacy
The death of journalist Michael Hastings raised important questions about the safety of journalists and the dangers that journalists face in pursuit of knowledge. Hastings was a contributing editor to Rolling Stone and reporter for Buzzfeed who received acclaim for his story on General Stanley McChrystal, “The Runaway General”. The article by Hastings set off controversy that resulted in General McChrystal resigning. Hastings began to focus his work on the growing surveillance state, becoming a major thorn in the Obama administration’s side.
In 2013 Hastings died in a car crash under mysterious circumstances. At the time of his death Hastings was working on an investigation into CIA Director John Brennan. Brennan was the architect of George W. Bush’s enhanced interrogation, or torture program. According to leaked documents from the intelligence firm Stratfor, the CIA Director was also behind the Obama Administration’s crackdown on journalists which began last year with the AP phone scandal.
The death created a slew of conspiracies regarding Michael Hastings and whether it is possible that he was targeted for his work and future headaches he may have created for the Obama Administration and Director Brennan. These questions, however unpopular are important for anyone aspiring towards journalism or accountability in general.
So What Is Journalism?
In looking through the many examples of State suppression of media and reporting I have seen a number of definitions of what qualifies as journalism and what does not. According to Wikipedia: Journalism “is a method of inquiry and literary style used in social and cultural representation. It serves the purpose of playing the role of a public service machinery in the dissemination and analysis of news and information. Journalistic integrity is based on the principles of truth, accuracy and factual knowledge… mediums can vary diversely, from print publishing to electronic broadcasting, and from newspaper to television channels, as well as to the web, and to digital technology.”
We have seen examples of controlled journalism, advocacy journalism, citizen journalism, activism, and simply, concerned citizens spreading the word about dangers they witness. Who is it that can truly define, designate and restrict what a journalist is or does? Is that a role we would leave to governments or corporate news outlets to decide? The old guard of media is waking up, and, according to the New York Times are “part of a movement of big-name journalists who are migrating from newspaper companies to digital start-ups.”
The oldstream media and its benefactors are reacting to the blurring line between activist, journalist, and citizen by clamping down on the free flow of information. By attempting to categorize each of us, and mold us into easily defined rigid structures they ensure that only the approved journalists and articles will be released. This also has the effect of normalizing these categories. I have been told by some that they agree with Janice Evans and Dianne Feinstein. They do not believe that Barrett Brown and I are journalists. And in some ways we DON’T fit the old model. In 2014 truth has become too important to leave to a ruling class and establishment media. The people are taking up arms, and by that I mean cameras, pens, and voices. Old Media be damned.
Recently by Derrick Broze:
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Derrick Broze is an investigative journalist, community activist, gardener and promoter from Houston, Texas. He is the co-founder of The Houston Free Thinkers, and co-host of Free Thinker Radio. Broze also hosts and produces a weekly podcast under the name the Conscious Resistance Live. His writing can be found on TheConsciousResistance.com, The Liberty Beat, the Anti-Media, Intellihub, Activist Post, and other independent media sources.