Holding Power Accountable is Key Mission of Free and Fearless Press

By Leonard Downie Jr.
Weil Family Professor of Journalism, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, Arizona State University
Former executive editor, The Washington Post

I write to emphasize the “preeminent and lasting historical significance” of the Fallen Journalists Memorial and the importance of having it located near the National Mall with a view of Capitol Hill. It should be easily found among the other important symbols of our American democracy and their influence on the world – in this case, the vital role of a free and fearless press to fully inform citizens and hold government and power accountable to them.

Many, many journalists have risked and given their lives to do just that in the United States and countries around the world. Numerous American journalists have died covering wars and terrorism. Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles was murdered in 1976 while investigating organized crime in Arizona. Five journalists were shot and killed in the Capital Gazette newspaper newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland in 2018 by a man who was unhappy with the newspaper’s reporting about him. In recent years, many other American journalists have been threatened with harm because of extremist opposition to their reporting.

Journalists in other countries have perished in larger numbers because they dared to report honestly about their governments, corruption, crime and human rights. In many cases, their inspiration has been the tradition of American journalism that has held power accountable ever since the early days of our Republic.

In the early 20th century, “muckraking” journalists exposed corruption in government and monopolistic industries that helped create the political climate for, among other reforms, President Theodore Roosevelt’s trust busting, congressional passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the ratification of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which authorized popular election of the U. S. Senate. Skeptical reporting by journalists risking their lives in Vietnam contributed to opposition to the lost war at home. Investigative reporting about Watergate led to the only resignation in disgrace of a U. S. president. The ensuing adoption of accountability journalism as a high priority by most of the U. S. news media has exposed wrongdoing and led to reforms in almost every aspect of American society – from local governments, police, courts, prisons and schools to national government, private industry and finance, churches and charities, to racial discrimination and mistreatment of women.

Journalism that holds power accountable has become the most important mission of American journalism in the cacophony of information and misinformation in the digital age. And it has increasingly become an important mission of brave journalists in more and more authoritarian and corrupt countries around the world, even at the cost of the journalists’ lives.

The Fallen Journalists Memorial will not just honor those journalists who have sacrificed their lives performing this vital public service. It will help all those who see and study the memorial to understand and support the role of journalism – especially accountability journalism – in underpinning democracy and exposing dangers to it in these turbulent times. To accomplish this, the memorial needs to be located where it can be seen, so that it can educate and inspire, and where it can ensure that a free press is seen as a companion to the other great institutions of the American experiment.

Leonard Downie Jr. is the Weil Family Professor of Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School and the founder of Investigative Reporters and Editors. Previously, he served as executive editor of The Washington Post from 1991 to 2008, where he also worked as an investigative reporter, editor on the local and national news staffs, London correspondent, and managing editor. As deputy metro editor from 1972 to 1974, he helped oversee the Post’s Watergate coverage under Ben Bradlee. Downie has also authored seven books on investigative reporting and journalism, as well as two special reports for the Committee to Protect Journalism. His most recent book is All About the Story: Power, Politics and the Washington Post.

To read all of the essays submitted to the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission in support of a prominent site for the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation, click here