Letter To The Editor: Need For Freedom Of The Press

Los Alamos
When I was a student at Western New Mexico University, I learned first-hand the power of the media to protect people who have no influence or authority of their own.

I had zero training — WNMU didn’t offer journalism classes — but at 22, I became editor-in-chief of the university’s newspaper. The university president had just received a 20-percent raise, so my two-person staff and I decided that would be our top-of-the-fold, front-page news. We put some sports and departmental news in the middle, and then on the back, a picture of our crowded parking lots and a wry comment about the bus-drivers convention that had taken over campus that week. It was summer, and students were expressing frustration with having nowhere to park.

I called President John Counts several times to arrange my very first interview and photo shoot. He didn’t return my calls, so to accompany the press release, I chose a recent photo of him from our archives. Snapped after a local bike race, it showed him smiling and giving a thumbs-up.

Within hours of the paper hitting the newsstands, WNMU administrators called me into a meeting and demanded I pull all 1,000 copies off the shelves. The thumbs-up photo was inappropriate, they said, and the bus drivers were threatening to relocate their annual convention because of the parking-lot picture.

Looking for advice, I called a friend of mine at the Silver City Sun-News. Although I had not intended to hand her a story, she recognized what had happened as potential free-speech impingement, and interviewed me over the phone. The Sun-News ran the inappropriate picture on its front page, and soon the story was picked up by the Albuquerque Journal and the Associated Press.

The result was almost instantaneous. The students got their papers back. And despite plenty of boundary pushing, I had no further troubles with the administration that year.

Lots can be said about my inaugural publishing choices. However, this incident taught me the power of the press to hold those in power accountable for their actions. Counts and his staff had no fear of me, a junior English major, but they didn’t want thousands of readers — including potential students and their parents — to form a negative view of their campus, so they caved.

I won, and the students won, thanks entirely to the free press.

My example is one miniscule example of the ways the media protects citizens’ rights. When President Donald Trump insults the mainstream press with words like “dishonest,” “fake,” “ruse,” “opposition,” “making up stories,” and “enemy,” I am acutely aware that there are many, many far more vulnerable people than I whose voices and stories will not be heard, including poor, working-class, and minority populations who are easy to take advantage of because they have less money and leverage.

If the media are a “party of opposition” to anyone, it is people in power who want to get away with greedy actions that endanger individuals, communities, and ecosystems. On the flipside, if people in power are acting in ways that benefit the greatest number of people, they have nothing to fear from the media.

Whatever our political views, we can’t rely on news directly from the government, whether through tweets or president-approved news sites. Any powerful institution is inherently motivated to disclaim only what it wants people to know, and to hide anything unflattering. By this logic, the government, whether Democratic or Republican, cannot be trusted to hold itself accountable. We need to find respectable sources willing to cover what those in power might not want us to read. Those are the ones that need our attention.