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Editor's Weekly: A Journalist's Thanksgiving

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 24, 2008 - The excerpt below is from Letters from the Editor: Reflections on Journalism and Life, a posthumous collection of William Woo's letters (University of Missouri Press, 2007.) During his 10 years as a journalism professor at Stanford University - after he left St. Louis and before his death in April 2006 - Woo sent his students a weekly letter about journalism’s enduring values. Here are his Thanksgiving thoughts: 

This letter comes to you early in Thanksgiving week. On the day before Thanksgiving, if tradition holds, the Wall Street Journal will publish an editorial that runs every year.

It will contain a passage written in 1620 by Nathaniel Morton, the historian of the Plymouth Colony. Since 1961, the Journal has run it every Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Morton's observance of the voyage of the Mayflower and the experience of the pilgrims' first year in the New World begins like this:

So they left that goodly and pleasant city of Leyden, which had been their resting-place for above eleven years, but they knew that they were pilgrims and strangers here below, and looked not much on these things, but lifted up their eyes to Heaven . . .

It's the Journal's way of reflecting on the day and giving thanks for it. In similar fashion, each year, I send my students what I've come to think of as a Journalist's Thanksgiving. Every time, as with the one you're reading, the piece goes through a little revision, but the sentiment is always the same.

This year, our family will be observing Thanksgiving at the home of some friends. The boys will all be with us, and for that I am not only thankful but happy. I expect that the moment will come when one by one, going around the table, we'll all talk about something we are thankful for. That's a tradition in many American families, and yet I am always a little uncomfortable with it.

For one thing, the parts of your life for which you give thanks often are intensely private, while some are so obvious as to make anything said about them sound trite. When your thanks go further afield, they can be hard to explain in a minute or two; and anyway other people may not be interested.

I have in mind, for example, an editor I met one summer in the northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai. I may have mentioned him to you. I do not know how I would talk about him at a Thanksgiving dinner.

I had gone to Chiang Mai to give a speech on press freedom, and beforehand there was a lunch with local journalists. Among them was this editor named Amnat Khunyosying. His paper, Pak Nua Raiwan, was highly critical of local officials and he was warned to lay off. Amnat kept digging at the truth and one day as he was getting into his pickup truck, someone pulled up alongside, pushed a 9-mm pistol through the window and opened fire, severely wounding him.

The army is never far from Thai politics, and Amnat's assailants turned out to be four soldiers. They were quickly apprehended, but the local prosecutor was afraid to bring charges, because of where that might lead. If it hadn't been for the insistence of other local journalists, he might have let the case drop. On the day we had lunch, the police told Amnat that a couple of out-of-town trigger men had been spotted in Chiang Mai. Watch your back, the cops said. 

But there at the lunch, Amnat was holding forth against official corruption as if it were the easiest thing in the world to talk about. The motto of his paper, by the way, is "Every drop of ink builds the future, builds the truth." In that moment, I was truly thankful for him and for the brave men and women around the world whose daily struggles are a testament to the power of an idea, namely, that the freedom to think and to write and to speak is the dividing line between liberty and slavery

The Thai journalists at the table that day had many stories to tell of physical and economic intimidation. They asked if American journalists faced similar threats, and I had to say that while our work is not always easy, it rarely is what anyone would call dangerous -- at least the work we do in the United States. They seemed to think that our First Amendment protected us from threats and assassination attempts.

It does no such thing, of course, though in other ways its protections are incalculable. Exactly what the First Amendment means has been subject to interpretation over the years. But its unique blessing has been to stand as a guarantee that the power of government must not be used to suppress the ability of the people to speak or write what is on their minds or in their hearts. I believe this is what we as journalists have most to be thankful for, today and always.

Now and then you see surveys showing that many Americans are unsympathetic with the First Amendment. At times, we the press have done our best to make it even less popular. Many of us seem to think that the amendment was written for the press, rather than for the people, and that it confers upon us special privileges or rights that are not given to others.

I think that assumption is part of the problem of the media's arrogance, about which people understandably complain. There is almost no phrase used by journalists that I dislike more than "the public's right to know," for it so often justifies not courage and independence but excess, intrusion and abuse.

As poll after poll shows, our business falls ever more sharply from the public's grace, and the press has struggled to repair the damage. You hear editors talk about "reconnecting with our communities." That's a worthy objective, but it also contains a danger of associating ourselves with orthodoxy and the status quo.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors a few years ago set up something called the Journalism Values Institute. Its purpose was to rededicate journalists to the "core values" of our profession, which presumably are better than ordinary everyday values.

The JVI put out a handbook that recommended that news stories focus not only on the good and the bad but also on the "profoundly ordinary." The trouble is, too much of our journalism celebrates the profoundly ordinary, which is another way of saying orthodoxy.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was to listen to a speech by the novelist Salman Rushdie at the last ASNE convention I attended as an editor. That was in 1996, and Rushdie, as you may remember, had been living under threat of death from Iran. His novel "Satanic Verses" was said to be disrespectful to Islam. Rushdie spoke about "respect," and a few lines from his speech are my Thanksgiving gift to you.

Rushdie noted that "Fine as the word sounds, truth is all too often unpalatable, awkward, unorthodox. The armies of received ideas are marshaled against it."

He went on to observe that we live in a censorious age, and one of the most prominent weapons of censorship is a new concept of respect. Once respect meant consideration and serious attention. Now respect means agreement, and any dissent from someone's position -- indeed any inquiry into it -- is regarded as disrespect. Disagree with people and they say you've dissed them. Editors know that there is almost no story that someone will not find "disrespectful"

"I want to suggest to you," said Rushdie (and these are the words that I would like to say at a Thanksgiving table), "that citizens of free societies, democracies, do not preserve their freedom by pussyfooting around their fellow citizens' opinions, even their most cherished beliefs. . . . A free society is not a calm and eventless place -- that is the kind of static, dead society dictators try to create. Free societies are dynamic, noisy, turbulent, and full of radical disagreements . . .

"It is the disrespect of journalists -- for power, for orthodoxy, for party lines, for ideologies, for vanity, for arrogance, for folly, for pretension, for corruption, for stupidity -- that I would like to celebrate this morning, and that I urge you all, in freedom's name, to preserve."

In some news organizations today, my students, a curious kind of courage prevails. It is the courage to be popular, the courage to recklessly reflect the conventional view, the courage to fearlessly exalt the profoundly ordinary. Salman Rushdie was talking about a different kind of courage, and it is the one I commend to you.

That courage requires disrespect, and it results in the relentless search for truth, no matter what the consequences; for without truth, men and women cannot really be free -- for without truth no democracy can endure. I think my friend Amnat in Chiang Mai would understand. He was willing to take terrible risks for it, and on this Thanksgiving Day I shall be thinking about him -- and about you, also.

Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the editor of St. Louis Public Radio. She was the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization, from 2008 to 2013. A St. Louis native, Margie previously worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, Washington correspondent and assistant managing editor. She has received numerous awards for reporting as well as a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Press Club and the Missouri Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a past board member of the Investigative News Network and a past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. Margie graduated from Kirkwood High School and Stanford University. She is married to William H. Freivogel. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Margie enjoys rowing and is a fan of chamber music.