Freedom is just another word

At the risk of appearing presumptuous, I always thought of journalism as what the state Newspaper Association (for weeklies) recently called an “essential service.” So did the founding fathers. They made freedom of the press the first amendment to the constitution. Apparently, that is not the case in the face of rapidly spreading pandemics. 

Last week when I was formally advised (as a journalist) through a series of e-mails from the Ulster County Legislature that public comment would not be allowed at its March 17th regular monthly meeting, I thought it made sense. When they subsequently banned media from live coverage at the county office building, I had one of those WTF moments. The availability of live streaming and the opportunity to interview “individual legislators” after the meeting was, to my mind, not a reasonable alternative.

This is not to cite privilege, but in journalism, there is no substitute for live, face-to-face coverage. Televised meetings with maybe one or two cameras stationed at opposite sides of the room, are no substitute for being there.  Cameras dictate what you will watch, like at a baseball game.

I took my complaints up and down the food chain, only to be thwarted at every level. I first accosted legislature chairman Dave Donaldson for ordering the local media ban, but he was innocent. “It was the governor’s call,” he said, citing Executive Order 202.1 of March 13. The state’s Office of Open Government, established after the Watergate abuses and ostensibly the leading government advocate of freedom of the press, concurred.  

We all now understand that even small gatherings could pose a public health threat, but even with a handful of media and staff, and a full legislature in attendance (23 members), it doesn’t make for much of a crowd. Five legislators were absent from the March meeting (two skyped in) making for a cozy setting. Legislators usually sit desk-to-desk, well within “social distance,” though chairs were moved around to create minimum distance between lawmakers. None, that I’m an aware of, had any problems with the press being excluded from their meeting. (Towns and villages are under the same restrictions.)

Here, I’ll channel a new Janis Joplin biography by New Paltz’s own Holly George-Warren.

Freedom, Joplin might have sung from one of her greatest hits, if she hadn’t O.D.’d on heroine in 1970, is just another way of making all the rules.

The governor, in effect, has suspended the First Amendment and that could have serious consequences.

We used to have a saying at the old daily that if politicians put out papers, they wouldn’t be newspapers. Which is to say, politicians in their public pronouncements all too typically either issue self-serving half-truths, partisan propaganda or flat-out lies in the guise of public information. 

While I worry about possibilities of precedents being set by Executive Order 202.1 and the subsequent effect on our first freedom, I will remain on the sidelines with neighbors, friends and fellow citizens far more impacted by current events for the duration of this health crisis.

Stay tuned.

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