Jim Zachary: Tiananmen Square frames media freedom in the US

Listening to Cynde Strand describe what it was like for a journalist covering the mass protest and government crackdown in 1989 at Tiananmen Square was chilling.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of people died.

She could have been one of them.

Thankfully, she was not.

Strand, speaking at the Defend Media Freedom Panel at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta recently, described how she was protected by humble but brave Chinese people after her crew filmed the tragedy at Tiananmen Square. The journalists were hidden from authorities by the locals and smuggled to safety in a covered rickshaw, because the protestors knew if journalists from the free world did not report on what was happening no one else would tell their story.

Now, 30 years later, she is CNN's executive director of coverage for international news.

Back then, she could have never imagined a reporter in the free world — in the United States — would fear for their personal safety or even be vilified for simply reporting facts and informing the public.

My how things have changed.

She is concerned, not so much about her personal safety, but about the consequences of the full-out assault on the media, rants of "fake news" and a mindset that journalists are the "enemy of the people."

"I have seen how fragile democracy can be," Strand said during the panel discussion.

Strand said President Donald Trump's fake news rhetoric has been picked up by suppressive governments around the world and spills over into the general public inspiring people on Facebook, Instagram and social media to parrot the media contempt.

People who fully support President Trump's policies and positions should not embrace this vilification of the media.

It is wrong.

It is dangerous.

If it is wrong for the media to hold Trump accountable for his words and actions, will it be wrong for the media to hold the next Democrat who ascends to the presidency accountable, whenever that may be?

Strand was joined on the dais by former CNN colleague and current president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation Richard Griffiths.

Griffiths is intelligent, thoughtful and not given to extreme rhetoric. He can be just as critical of the media as he is of government when it runs amuck.

He is also concerned about what he calls siloed media consumption. Instead of disputing facts, people just call reporting they don't like "fake news" or "propaganda," he said.

He's right. Only reading, watching or listening to what we agree with creates mindless echo chambers and reinforces false notions, incubating an environment where people just make up their own facts rather than learning truth from credible, independent, verifiable sources.

Nadia Theodore, the Canadian consul general to the U.S., called it consuming news "in a bubble," and cautioned about the failure to rely on credible sources for news and to consider differing points of view when consuming analysis or commentary. There is a great deal of wisdom in her advice.

It is equally important to recognize the value of local journalism and distinguish between your local newspaper or media outlet and the national media.

Local journalists report on city council, county commission, the board of education, hospital authority, planning commission and other local agencies.

They keep the public informed.

They defend the public's right to know.

They hold those in positions of power accountable.

They help to protect the public purse.

They tell the stories of the people they cover.

They are real men and women, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, friends and neighbors.

They are not fake and they most certainly are not the enemy of the people.

CNHI Deputy National Editor Jim Zachary is CNHI's regional editor for its Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas newspapers and editor of the Valdosta Daily Times. He is vice president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

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