Perhaps it's fitting for our "Tale of Two Cities," too-often-separate and way-too-unequal America, but the last few months has been both the best of times for American journalism...and the worst of times. What's the worst? In an era when narrative truly matters, it's been far too easy for media outlets to spin inherently false ones, and too hard to put the genie of magical untruth back in the bottle.
But the sins of journalism in 21st Century America also help to illuminate the fact that so many people in my profession have performed so heroically on the Ferguson beat. Some faced rocks and other projectiles at the worst of the unrest, many were tear-gassed by the authorities, and a remarkable 20 or so reporters, photojournalists and live-streamers were arrested and detained in Ferguson, often when they were obeying orders and moving to a public sidewalk. These journalists have faced not just physical threats but violations of the 1st Amendment and their basic human rights -- all because they thought Americans needed to see the truth of what was happening in Missouri for ourselves, and not merely filtered by those in power.
I believe the best of the lot -- my former Daily News colleague now with MSNBC Trymaine Lee, Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post, Jon Swaine of the Guardian, local freelance writer Sarah Kendzior, Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times, to name just a few of many -- will one day be regarded in the same way that the pioneers who covered Birmingham and Selma in the 1960s are remembered today.
In this heated environment, journalist Jorge Ramos -- the news anchor for both Univision and Fusion -- stepped forward last week to accept a "lifetime achievement in defending press freedom" award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. He said that he did so in the name of journalists killed last year covering conflicts in Mexico, in Syria -- including Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff -- and elsewhere. But most notable was his inspiring plea for journalists to be truth-tellers:
"The best of journalism happens when we take a stand: when we question those who are in power, when we confront the politicians who abuse their authority, when we denounce an injustice," Ramos said before a packed ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. "The best of journalism happens when we side with the victims, with the most vulnerable, with those who have no rights. The best of journalism happens when we, purposely, stop pretending that we are neutral and recognize that we have a moral obligation to tell truth to power."
"When we deal with the powerful, we have to take a stand," he went on. "I'm a reporter, I don't want to be your friend. And trust me, you don't want to be my friend."
One more reason that Ramos' words resonated was that for him -- as it was for me -- the government's unchallenged lies that led to a war in Iraq were a turning point.
"Sadly, we stayed silent before the war in Iraq and thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraq civilians died unnecessarily," he continued. "We have to learn from that. Silence is the worst sin in journalism."
Exactly. And while there were some hairy moments on the Ferguson story when it looked like silence would win out, so many truth-tellers stayed on the case, and the saga of a vulnerable community has now energized citizens from Boston to Oakland and so many places in between. Which is exactly why -- despite everything -- I'm more hopeful about the future of American journalism than I have been for a while.