Our country is based on a free press. That’s how the public finds out about issues affecting the country, and decides what the best choices are to handle the problems we are faced with. And even what politicians to vote for, based on their opinions on how to handle different issues. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work; in this era of slanted news channels and people who pull the lever based solely on party, it doesn’t seem like we take advantage of our opportunities to govern ourselves.
But at least the free press is available to give us insight into things that are not quite right. It was the press that brought Watergate to the public, and eventually it brought down President Nixon. It was the press that revealed information on candidates from Gary Hart to Herman Cain that derailed them. It’s a vital component if democracy is going to continue to work.
Last week we saw another government attempt to keep the press from getting the word out about an issue that affects the health of the nation and the lives of many Americans. And it reeks of the Republicans being in the pockets of the oil companies. For a party that preaches following the Constitution to the letter, and presents itself as the party of freedom and keeping the government out of people’s lives, it’s another example of their hypocrisy, much like their passing of the Patriot Act or the Arizona anti-immigrant law, which gave the government extra powers in the name of security. No matter how you feel about the particular issues, they both were examples of the government being able to take away some of your freedoms.
The latest example was the arrest of Academy Award-nominated documentary producer Josh Fox, during a hearing he was filming in Washington, D.C., concerning “fracking.” Fracking is a method of getting oil and gas out of the ground that involves injecting it with chemicals to make rock formations split, releasing the oil and gas trapped there. That’s a simple explanation of a much more complicated process. But some countries have banned it because there are great concerns over the fact that it seems to have side effects that may be unsafe.
But whether you think the practice should be allowed or not isn’t the issue. The point is that in order for the public to make an informed decision on whether we want to allow this, we need to know all the facts, and then decide. It seems like a simple thing, and the way things are supposed to work in a democracy.
Josh Fox produced a documentary called Gasland, about how the process affected a town in Wyoming. One scene that has had a lot of impact showed a homeowner turning on his water faucet and holding a match to the water, which then ignites. The process filled his water supply with so many chemicals that the water had become flammable. Even the Environmental Protection Agency has been studying the fact that the town’s water supply had been contaminated.
Fox has become known for his anti-fracking stance, so when he showed up for what was supposed to be an open, public hearing to film the proceedings and get footage for his new film about the influence of oil and gas on the government, they knew exactly who he was. According to Fox, he went through the proper channels to request permission. As a credentialed journalist, this has always been routine. When the Democrats were in control of the House, he had no problems. But since the Republicans have taken over, they have not responded and put up obstructions at every turn.
Still, it has been routine procedure for journalists to cover public hearings. So when Fox went in, he didn’t expect to be arrested for filming the proceedings. Obviously, the Republicans controlling the hearing didn’t agree with the journalist’s politics, so they decided to shut him down. And they did it in the most dramatic fashion, by having him handcuffed and led out of the building. Rep. Brad Miller, the ranking Democrat on the committee, can be heard on recordings of the proceedings asking Republican Chairman Andy Harris to halt the arrest and permit Fox to film the public hearing, and Harris denies Miller’s request.
The First Amendment to the Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law… that infringes on the Freedom of the Press.” Seems pretty straightforward, and something so obviously clear and vital to our democracy that Republicans should be fighting for it. Even if they wanted to be sticklers for adherence to the rules, they could have confiscated the camera due to the fact that they hadn’t responded positively to Fox’s request to film. But to have him taken out in handcuffs was just a rude, unnecessary display of power.
Additionally, the hearing was not crowded, and there were not hordes of cameras jockeying for position and causing havoc. There was no safety issue or anything involving the disturbing the proceedings. Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler said, “I have served in the House of Representatives since 1992, and I had the privilege of chairing the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. In all that time, I cannot recall a chair of any committee or subcommittee having ever ordered the removal of a person who was filming a committee proceeding and not being disruptive… it is a matter of routine that all sorts of people photograph and record our proceedings.”
Is it just a coincidence that Fox is known to be against fracking, and a foe of the oil and gas companies? As he stated afterward, “When I was led out of the hearing room in handcuffs, John Boehner’s pledge of transparency in congress was taken out with me.”