October 25, 2011

DAVID OFFER: Lovejoy winners share courage to report news, whatever the risk

David B. Offer

Nobody should question the courage of Soroya Sarhaddi Nelson.

Armed with a notebook, a pen and equipment to record and transmit information, Nelson faces danger, even death, in her job as a reporter for National Public Radio. She is based in Cairo and has covered war, conflict and social change from the Middle East to North Africa.

She opened the NPR Kabul Bureau in 2006 and spent more than three years in Afghanistan, reporting on life in that war-ravaged country.

Her courage was recognized last week when she received the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award at Colby College. She is the 59th person to receive the award, which honors the memory of a man who has been called the first martyr to freedom of the press in the United States.

Lovejoy was born in Albion in 1802 and graduated from what was then called Waterville College -- it's now Colby College -- in 1826. After study at the Princeton Theological Seminary, he moved to Missouri to launch a religious anti-slavery newspaper, the St. Louis Observer. When he editorialized against the murder of a free black man, mobs destroyed his press.

He moved to Illinois, started another paper, and continued to write against slavery.

Here's how Colby describes the result of Lovejoy's journalism:

"His position hardened, and on July 6, 1837, he published another editorial condemning slavery. That night his press was again destroyed. He bought another, which was also destroyed. Friends then organized a militia and secretly bought and installed another press.

"On the night of Nov. 7, 1837, a mob attacked the new press. The militia fought back, killing one. The mob eventually set fire to the building and killed Lovejoy." He was buried on his 35th birthday.

Nelson demonstrates the same commitment, courage and passion that cost Lovejoy his life.

Speaking at Colby last week, Nelson told stories about being blinded by tear gas while reporting on the recent Arab Spring uprising and pleading with black-clad gunmen to let her free in Iraq in 2004.

But she seemed unable to answer two questions that followed her speech: Why does she do what she does -- accepting danger to report the news -- and how does she find the courage to do her job.

"Extreme danger inevitably leads to soul-searching about why we do what we do and whether it's even worth it," she said. She talked about her desire "connect Americans to the rest of the world" and the sense of satisfaction that comes from "being able to see the story unfold."

"Looking back at what I've faced in places like the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, I feel it's been worth it, both for myself and those informed by my work," Nelson said.

I'm certain that's true, but it does not really explain how anyone -- Lovejoy, Nelson or the other 61 men and women who have received the award -- finds the courage to do this important work.

The answer, I think, stems from a sense that what they do is not just interesting, but vital and essential. That brings a willingness to face danger to tell stories that must be told.

I've known several of the Lovejoy winners, including the late Clark R. Mollenhoff, who received the award in 1959. Mollenhoff, Washington bureau chief of the Des Moines Register, was honored for courage in exposing racketeering and Mafia connections to the Teamsters Union.

I remember sitting with him in a bar in Washington, D.C., in the late 1960s, talking about the joys and dangers of being an investigative reporter. I was an eager young reporter; he was a respected reporter who had won a Pulitzer Prize while I was still in high school.

I can't quote him exactly -- too much time has passed and I kept no notes -- but I will never forget his encouragement and his commitment.

Mollenhoff was a lawyer, but he didn't want to practice law. Journalism was more important, he said. What you uncover and report can make things better. Being a reporter, especially an investigative reporter, is being part of democracy, he said.

For many years, Mollenhoff was chairman of the Freedom of Information Committee of the Society of Professional Journalist, helping lead the fight for open records and open meetings. Keeping government open and accountable was an important role for journalists, he told me.

I think that being part of democracy is a powerful motivator for most journalists, at least the good ones. It offers meaning to what could otherwise be just another job.

That sense of doing something important and worthwhile helps explain why men and women like Nelson, Mollenhoff and others who have received the Lovejoy award are willing report the news, even when the risk is great.

David B. Offer is the retired executive editor of the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel. Email davidboffer@hotmail.com.

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