Panel tackles democracy in the free press

By Lokchi Lam

Journalists discussed the problems with developing and maintaining a free press in a panel discussion October 30, titled “Democracy on Deadline,” which was hosted by the Chicago Society.

Present were Hugh Dellios, foreign editor at the Chicago Tribune; Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist; Calvin Skaggs, an independent filmmaker; and Craig Lamay, a journalism professor at Northwestern University.

Skaggs’s film Democracy on Deadline, a documentary about journalists worldwide struggling to create a free press, was screened after the panel discussion. Among many others, the film featured Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who was murdered in early October.

Skaggs spoke about the importance of an independent press in a democracy and the need for countries striving for a true democracy to support the press and freedom of speech.

“Journalism takes time,” said Skaggs, stressing that democracy is a habit of mind that must be developed with time as well as money. He added that he was “amazed at the profit margins that are demanded of journalists.”

Lamay, the Northwestern professor, discussed the high cost of journalism and its effect of impairing the development of a free press in developing countries.

“Journalism is never independent,” he said, adding that newspapers’ dependence on their readership for revenues creates the necessity for “rational omission,” where papers tend to publish news that sells in order to meet market demands.

Dellios, the Chicago Tribune’s foreign editor, talked about the government’s restrictions on the free press in foreign countries, such as the refusal to grant visas to journalists. He said that to support democracy, the U.S. should protest these restrictions in other countries.

“Buy newspapers,” said Dellios, pointing out that newspaper circulation has been dropping across the United States with the advent of Internet news, causing newspapers to lose revenue and thus even more resources. He raised the example of newspapers being forced to shut down foreign bureaus in order to cut costs, keeping themselves from providing thoroughly investigative news.

Hass drew from her experience as an Israeli journalist in the Gaza strip in discussing the difficulty of reaching mainstream press with information that differs from Israel’s official transcript, citing the little-publicized harsh Israeli restrictions on the movement of Palestinians.

Hass said the goal of journalistic objectivity was impossible to realize, since each journalist is part of a society.

Democracy on Deadline: The Global Struggle for an Independent Press will be shown on PBS at 10 p.m. on Tuesday, November 21.