Attacks on press display disregard for a free society


Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

In May, at the annual convention of the Michigan Press Association, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter offered a lesson on the increased importance of a robust free press in an era of growing right wing fanaticism.

It was a sobering reminder of the need to speak up and speak out when the very existence of one of our most cherished constitutional rights is at risk.

Michael Rezendes was the messenger that spring day in Lansing, when those in the newspaper business from across Michigan gathered to take stock of the industry on the 150th anniversary of the MPA. He was there to address journalists on The Boston Globe’s role in uncovering the child sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, specifically that in the Boston Archdiocese.

His work – and that of three other members of The Globe’s Spotlight Team – in detailing the scandal served as the basis for the 2015 Academy Award winning movie “Spotlight” starring Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, and Mark Ruffalo.

The film, in riveting detail, tells the story of how The Spotlight Team uncovered decades of child sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy in Boston, a scandal that eventually ensnared some 250 priests. The investigation was spawned by a Globe column in 2001 that reported on a series of lawsuits involving a priest accused of sexual abuse.

The movie-makers, according to Rezendes, “did justice” to the story, which continues to cast a pall on a church that is still dealing with how to respond to a sordid chapter in its past that tragically continues to be played out in the present tense.

Just recently, details emerged of more Catholic shame, this time in Pennsylvania, where a grand jury report claimed the church protected more than 300 “predator priests” over seven decades.

For Rezendes, that news undoubtedly brought back fresh memories of the death of Cardinal Bernard Law last December. Cardinal Law, who became the symbol of the clergy abuse scandal, was the archbishop of Boston during the many years of church disgrace. His death, wrote Rezendes in a Globe column on December 20, unleashed a “torrent of memories,” most of the decidedly tragic kind.

Months later, as Rezendes reflected on his role in the Pulitzer Prize winning effort with The Spotlight Team, he urged those at the Michigan Press Association gathering to “take up the fight” for watchdog reporting, pointing to its “power to spur” positive change.

“It can be long, tedious, and exhausting work, but it has become increasingly important in this age when accountability is at stake,” Rezendes told his MPA audience.

That message resonated around newsrooms across the country in mid August, thanks in part to a nudge from the editorial board of The Boston Globe.

The Globe’s editorial panel urged newspapers – large and small – to express their collective disgust on August 16 at President Trump’s incessant bashing of the mainstream media, urging those in the newspaper business to refute such attacks on the First Amendment guarantee of a free press.

The President, of course, employs such outlandish rhetoric as “fake news” and “Enemy of the People” as a way to change the political narrative, hoping to turn attention away from the series of ongoing scandals that engulf his administration.

It’s a strategy designed to rile up his political base, much like another Republican president attempted to do more than 40 years ago when another house of cards came tumbling down.

In such context, it would be wise for all to remember the words of another New Yorker – Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His oratory was best captured in his “Four Freedoms” speech to Congress in January 1941 against the backdrop of a world where “every tenet of democracy was threatened and ridiculed.”

In particular, he underscored the importance of “Freedom of Speech and Expression,” labeling it “the best defense against the corruption of democracy.”

Now would be high time to give such words added credence as a fundamental value we leave to future generations.