Goshay column: Only one verdict possible in Gannett reporter’s trial

By Charita Goshay Canton Repository USA TODAY NETWORK

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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The recent trial of Gannett reporter Andrea Sahouri was a case that ended as it should have: In an acquittal.

Sahouri was arrested last May while covering Black Lives Matter protests for the Des Moines Register newspaper in Iowa. She and her boyfriend, who accompanied her out of concern for her safety, were arrested.

Though Sahouri had in her possession the same credentials as other Des Moines Register journalists, she testified that police did not seem interested in seeing it. Her co-workers and other colleagues also attested to her identity.

On police officers’ body cameras, Sahouri can clearly be heard repeatedly identifying herself as a reporter.

During the trial, it was learned that the arresting officer did not have his body camera turned on; a violation of department policy.

According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, Sahouri was one of 130 journalists arrested during last year’s protests. The tracker https://pressfreedomtracker.us/ further reports that 395 journalists were assaulted last year, with 16 already attacked this year.

We saw that for ourselves on Jan. 6.

Sahouri was one of about a dozen U.S. journalists criminally charged last year. Had she been found guilty of obstruction and other charges, she could have spent a month in jail.

It was a dog of a case from the outset. Ignoring opinions not to pursue it, Polk County Attorney (prosecutor) John Sarcone, a Democrat, embarrassed himself and his office and wasted public resources.

It was Sahouri’s great fortune to have in place a jury who understands the value of a free press.

If it is indeed true that everything is connected, our First Amendment rights, which enshrine the freedom of the press, are not just for the media’s benefit.

Just because the news may not be what we want to hear, it doesn’t mean that the right to report it shouldn’t be vigorously defended and upheld. In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be a need for people like Sahouri, whose job is to report what she saw, ask questions, push for transparency, and in doing so, inform readers so they can decide what’s best for themselves and their communities.

The press is not impervious to criticism; there is forever room for improvement. But there’s a massive difference between criticism and censorship.

Censorship is not just morally wrong, it is a sin against our civic religion of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is far more damaging than “cancel culture” because the censor’s goal is to control and decide what is acceptable for people to know.

It is the despot’s weapon of choice to disempower and dismantle freedom.

For all his brilliance, President Abraham Lincoln shut down dissent during the Civil War, shuttering newspapers and even jailing editors, journalists and antiwar critics known as “Copperheads,” among them Rep. Clement L. Vallandigham of New Lisbon, Ohio, who was court-martialed and jettisoned to the Confederate States of America.

Richard Nixon’s undoing came at the hands of a free press reporting what it found, namely, that he was a crook.

On the cusp of the Iraq War, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer tried to quell press questions about the legitimacy of America’s first-ever preemptive war, warning that “People need to watch what they say.”

Not in a free country they don’t. And no one should ever let him forget it.

Add to that, the Obama Administration’s inexcusable tracking of certain reporters.

It, too, cannot be excused or forgotten.

As much as any politician, Thomas Jefferson was flayed by newspapers, yet Jefferson implicitly understood their necessity, saying:

“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost,” and “I am for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.”

Later, in 1807, he complained, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

Must have been one heck of a story.

Today, a disturbing percentage of Americans support the culling of press freedoms, including a former president who lived for publicity, yet made the press his personal punching bag for its refusal to be obsequious.

Sahouri’s acquittal strikes a blow against the notion that we no longer need the press, and that the principles of good journalism have gone the way of Walter Cronkite.

We would do well to remember that if press freedoms are allowed to be attacked and eroded, it’s only a natural progression and a matter of time before all rights come undone.

Reach Charita at 330-580-8313 or charita.goshay@cantonrep.com. On Twitter: @cgoshayREP