Yesterday was a good day for a journalism junkie. Heeding a call from The Boston Globe, more than 300 newspapers across the country ran editorials reminding readers, as The New York Times put it, “of the value of America’s free press” and affirming “a fundamental American institution.” The Times ran a full page of excerpts of many of these and encouraged readers to read fuller versions on the individual publications’ websites. In all, it made for inspirational reading and served as a helpful antidote to the press’s near-daily disparagement by our current president.
The Los Angeles Times did not participate in yesterday’s exercise but appeared to make amends by including on today’s Op-Ed page a piece by Northwestern University journalism professor Alex Kotlowitz titled “OK, Now It’s Your Turn To Defend Press Freedom.” Citing threats of death and injury to journalists by individuals taken in by the “enemy of the people” slur and how journalists are dealing with them, Kotlowitz writes, “Journalists are doing a remarkable job defending their profession. Where is everyone else?”
He told of Elijah Lovejoy, “a 19th century newspaper publisher and abolitionist who was killed by a mob while defending his printing press. ” The Newseum describes Lovejoy as the “first American martyr for the press,” and his story is worth contemplating. After an anti-abolitionist mob destroyed his press in St. Louis and authorities refused to acknowledge his Constitutional right to express his views, Lovejoy relocated across the Mississippi to Alton IL. Again townspeople destroyed his press. Authorities condemned the violence but urged Lovejoy to refrain from printing “incendiary doctrines which…have a tendency to disturb the quiet of our citizens and neighbors.” In response, Kotliowitz writes, “Lovejoy took to task not those who opposed his views but rather those who questioned his right to speak his mind and to publish the truth…”
Lovejoy said, “I know that I have the right to freely speak and publish my sentiments. “What I wish to know of you is whether you will protect me in the exercise of this right.”
Few came forward, Kotlowitz writes, and “four days later, while trying to protect his new printing press from being set on fire, he was shot and killed by a mob. In his final days what so distressed Lovejoy was not his ideological opponents but rather the decent people of Alton who refused to take a stand…(He) recognized the need for citizens to speak out in defense of a free press. That need has become urgent once again…”
Kotlowitz concludes, “Journalism is not an easy institution to rally around. But if there were ever a time for citizens to defend the press, this is it.”