Press freedom panel sparks lively discussion at Southworth Library

May 24, 2019

For the first time, America is on the list of the five most dangerous countries for journalists.

In the last two years, 88 reporters have been physically attacked — and 44 have been arrested — in the US.

Global press freedom has declined to its lowest point in 13 years, with threats to journalists in major democracies as well as authoritarian states.

These are a few of the statistics mentioned at the Southworth Library on Thursday night as Dartmouth residents and journalists came together to talk about the erosion of press freedom and the modern media landscape.

The panel discussion was presented by the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC) as a community conversation, which covered topics like Julian Assange, the term “fake news,” and rising violence against the press.

But moderator and Boston Globe reporter Edward Fitzpatrick cited Steve Engelberg, editor-in-chief of ProPublica, as saying that the biggest threat to journalism today is economics.

“In 1988 there were more than 400,000 people employed by newspapers across the country. Today, [it’s] 140,000 and dropping,” Fitzpatrick said, quoting Engelberg.

Panel member and Pulitzer Prize-winning editor Barbara Roessner agreed, noting that only 14 percent of Americans pay for their news.

“The economic model has utterly collapsed,” she said.

While she was managing editor of the Hartford Courant, Roessner said, “I had the awful task of taking the newsroom from 380 full-time employees to 150. And it’s now I think in the range of 30-40. So that’s really frightening.”

What scares journalists about the demise of the industry goes far beyond the lack of jobs.

A growing number of communities across America have no qualified local journalists to sit in on town or committee meetings or ask tough questions of local police or other officials.

According to Roessner, in these “news deserts,” no one is there to let public officials know that they’re being watched — so they’re free to do what they want, and corruption can run rampant.

“Back in the heyday of the Hartford Courant...we put a governor in jail. Those reporters are gone,” she said.

But it’s not just economics threatening journalists today.

The conversation turned deeply personal as Roessner described an attack on the Capital Gazette a year ago in which five journalists were shot to death in their newsroom in Annapolis.

“One of them was a very dear friend and colleague of mine, Rob Hiaasen,” she said, adding “When we say the press is under attack, it’s kind of an abstract statement. It may sound overly dramatic. But for me it’s a very very real thing, very close to home.”

Dartmouth residents were encouraged to ask questions or give comments during the event, and they responded with gusto, questioning the panel from the first five minutes.

At one point — after hearing a story about local police reporter Tara O’Neill, who was detained for hours by cops for doing her job covering a protest in Bridgeport, CT — one woman asked, “How can you not blame Trump?”

“I don’t think we should be politicizing a crime like that,” Roessner explained. “...I’ve been in the business for forty years. I’ve been threatened with things you can’t imagine, including death threats. I mean, that just goes with the territory. It’s part of our job.”

Many in the audience were interested in the event, even if they didn’t agree with some of what was said.

Audience member Richard Bell commented, “It’s useful to have the conversation. I clearly don’t agree with everything that was said…[but] it’s interesting to know how people that are in the print news business see their world, and why they’re struggling.”

Another audience member, Mary Hurwitz, said, “I feel like this is the beginning of a conversation that needs to continue. Our society is changing so quickly, so fast. And I don’t feel good about what’s’s all about trust. It’s all fascinating. And I hope no one gets hurt.”