HARTFORD, Conn.—In my first three weeks here at the Hartford Courant, I have grown acutely aware of a few unpleasant things. Among them are living examples of some hard realities in this industry: Journalists in general are not particularly well paid, and with newsrooms suffering from a financial crisis which hasn’t healed nearly as much as global markets have, reporters can’t count on job security like they used to.
I knew of these issues before I started here, but at the Courant I’m interacting with them all on a more personal level. I was surprised to run into reporters, at the Courant and at other outlets operating here, who rather casually told me stories about being laid off at one point or another, of getting the call and packing their belongings into cardboard boxes. These are good reporters with great sources and reputations. Not even they were immune.
I’m an intern, which means some people here think they need to give me advice (they are right, and I will take it). Perhaps the most often piece of guidance comes in the form of a joke. “You’re still in college? Find another career,” some here have told me with a nervous laugh. Often it is hard to really tell how much they are joking.
There are certainly some issues in this business. But still, at the Courant the barriers to me doing my job with some level of competency are few and far between. People usually call me back. Lawmakers occasionally run from interviews, but they don’t stay away for long. Even my friends here who like to tell me to find something else to do “while you still can” concede the following: This is one fun job, days are rarely boring, and few things beat a byline on top of a story you are proud of.
I’m having the time of the life. But elsewhere, some of my colleagues (a word I use loosely) simply aren’t.
Let’s start in Washington, where the Courant used to maintain a bureau but cut that staff after the recession. I dream one day of writing from D.C. (and bureaus there certainly make sense for some outlets), but it is hard to argue with the Courant’s cost benefit analysis. Ron Fournier, the conservative-leaning columnist for the National Journal, said during a visit to The Crimson this spring that, in his opinion, each successive presidential administration has further limited the access of the reporters who cover it. The White House press pool, he and others say, may not be a great place to be if you want to break news. And let’s not even talk of the White House’s policy for photographers.
The Obama administration’s poor treatment of journalists has gone beyond tightening access. Under the president’s watch a reporter, James Risen of the New York Times, is currently being threatened with jail time for not informing on a source. Last year, it was revealed that the justice department secretly obtained phone records of Associated Press reporters. These tactics have been called Nixonian; I’m not sure you can argue convincingly against that characterization.
Internationally, some journalists are doing even worse. The jailing of reporters in Egypt by a government the United States has embraced as an ally is troubling on many levels. Too often, I think, intrusions of this type are ignored until somebody we know, or can sympathize with, or who speaks the same language as we do, is caught up in it. That happened this month when three Al Jazeera English journalists were sentenced to long terms on bogus charges with no evidence.
Right on cue, I and others became outraged and educated on a problem that has been happening for months. Al Jazeera says that over 200 journalists are in jail worldwide, including 14 in Egypt. First and foremost we must feel for all the professionals who are behind bars simply for doing their jobs. On a more selfish level, these staggering numbers challenge my romantic conception of journalists traveling the world, breaking stories, and having a blast.
As I sit in here in Hartford, reading about jails and wiretaps but blissfully spared from it all, I have found myself thinking of these journalists in the United States and around the world who are taking real risks, or who at least find themselves in really risky situations. These recent events, and the extent to which they contrast with my lucky experiences here, have me considering the darker side of the profession more than ever before.
The money problems challenging journalism can, in theory, be fixed. The real challenges of this profession come from governments who forget the importance of a truly free media. I hope we’re not forgetting that here, and I hope other nations currently moving in the wrong direction aren’t yet a lost cause.
Let’s keep the scores of journalists behind bars in our thoughts and prayers. I wish them the great luck I have had so far.
Matthew Q. Clarida ’16, a Crimson news editor, is a history concentrator in Cabot House.