Looking Back on the Reporters Committee’s 35th Anniversary
On the first Sunday of December, 1969, I invited Tony Lukas of The New York Times to a brunch at my Chicago brownstone. We had been among the reporters covering the Chicago 8 Conspiracy Trial, one of the most notorious judicial proceedings in contemporary American history. The decision by Federal Judge Julius Hoffman to have one of the defendants, Bobby Seale, bound and gagged shocked those of us in the courtroom and, for that matter, the nation as well.
In the course of our reporting, Lukas and I had come to know the anti-war defendants as well as the leaders of the Black Panther Party and members of the radical underground known as the Weatherman.
Not yet consumed by Watergate, the White House and Attorney General John Mitchell nonetheless were desperate for information about any critics of President Nixon’s Vietnam War policies. That was when Mitchell let it be known that he was contemplating the use of subpoena powers to summon reporters, to determine who and what they knew among the radical groups, and to determine the journalists’ state of mind. The Justice Department also talked of gaining access to reporters’ notes, film outtakes and audio tapes. It was perhaps the most draconian wish list ever conjured up the Federal government.
That prompted my invitation to Lukas that Sunday in December. It was not yet certain how sweeping Mitchell’s subpeona threat would be, but several news organizations were beginning to recognize the need to resist. I told Tony I would go to jail rather than honor a subpoena from any government agency. He concurred. We also agreed that, given the climate of the time, it was uncertain how many employers would rush to their reporters’ defense. That would have been especially true of the networks who always labored under the phony cloud that the government might lift their broadcast licenses if they refused to cooperate.
I was one of several CBS News correspondents who covered the drawn-out Conspiracy Trial. I proposed to Lukas that we organize a nationwide association of journalists who would fight subpoenas and vigorously defend our First Amendment Rights. He agreed and we began to make calls across the country.
Thanks to a Northwestern University law professor, Jon Walz, we were introduced to two other legal scholars, Anthony Amsterdam at Stanford University, and Samuel Dash of Georgetown University, who would gain fame later as the chief Watergate prosecutor. Dash offered to provide a venue for a proposed meeting on the Georgetown campus. Amsterdam agreed to serve as our legal counsel on a pro bono basis.
Lukas and I successfully contacted some 35 reporters, including Fred Graham and John Kifner of The New York Times, Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times, Mike Wallace and Bill Stout of CBS News, Ben Bradlee and Bob Maynard of The Washington Post, Barry Kalb and Jim Doyle of the Washington Star.
On Sunday, March 8, 1970, we met and agreed to organize as The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to counter “government threats to freedom of the press.” Jack Landau served as the Committee’s first executive director
The rest is history. The number of amicus briefs filed in behalf of fellow journalists were as numerous as our funds would allow. We joined in support of Earl Caldwell, a New York Times reporter who was being subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Francisco for information concerning the Black Panthers.
But there was an important lesson to be gleaned from this experience which was that only when the government overstepped its bounds did reporters rise to their own defense and resist the infringement on a free press, free expression and the right to know.
I only wish I could be with all of you on May 17 to celebrate 35 years of accomplishment, but I will be in far off China where the freedoms we value most are yet to be tested fully.
As a judge of the Pulitzer Prizes the past two years, I am convinced that the quality of journalism among the major newspapers has never been better. We should not allow mea culpas to overshadow our accomplishments. A recent University of Missouri survey suggests that the public is far more understanding and supportive of a free press than we were led to believe. Moreover, documentary series like Frontline and the American Experience are in the best tradition of Edward R. Murrow. The ideological idiots who talk of silencing it should be held accountable and reminded that the airwaves belong to the public not to them.
Unfortunately, the threat which brought us together so long ago is facing us once again. Secrecy, manipulation of the facts, blatant lying, coverups and attempts to control what the public sees or reads are tools that the present Administration is employing, all reminders that the fight is far from over.
Professor of Journalism
USC Annenberg School of Communication
Los Angeles, CA 90089-0281