“A popular government, without popular information, or the mean of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both,” declared James Madison, the author and champion of the Bill of Rights. “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
This is still the essential truth of an American experiment that can only be advanced toward the equal and inclusive justice that did not exist in Madison’s time by a broadly informed and broadly engaged citizenry. When journalists are harassed, intimidated, threatened and detained, the basic premise of democracy—that the great mass of people, armed with information and perspective, and empowered to act upon it, will set right that which is made wrong by oligarchs—is attacked.
Where assaults on the gatherers and purveyors of popular information occur, those assaults must be challenged immediately. Social media and then mainstream media did just that after Washington Post writer Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post writer Ryan Reilly were arrested, detained and then released without charges or an explanation by police in Ferguson, Missouri, as they were reporting on the tensions that developed after 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed in a police shooting. The detention of reporters is merely one illustration of the seriousness of the broader battering of civil liberties and civil rights in Ferguson, a battering so severe that Amnesty International has made the unprecedented move of deploying human rights observers to the city.
The detentions of Lowery and Reilly stirred an outcry. Washington Post editor Martin Baron decried the incident as “wholly unwarranted and an assault on the freedom of the press to cover the news.” President Obama said the next day, “Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs.” Amid a steady stream of reports that other reporters, still photographers and camera crews were being threatened, teargassed, assaulted and detained in Ferguson, forty-eight national media organizations and press freedom groups signed a letter to local authorities declaring, “This type of behavior is anathema to the First Amendment and to journalists everywhere.”