January 1, 1970“Almost all of the reporters ask me if I have accomplished anything at Camp Casey and I think we really have. We have brought the war onto the front pages of the newspapers and the top stories of the mainstream media. It is really incredible that we are doing so well in the media because I keep telling all of the reporters that I am doing their jobs. I am asking the tough questions of the President that they don't ask.” –-Cindy Sheehan
There are times, such as this August along a hot dusty road leading to the Bush ranch in Texas, when the professional press rediscovers that news is not just what government officials say it is. Informed citizens affected by some issue often ask the best questions. This goes as much for school board hearings and town council meetings as it does for probing this president’s rationale for his war in Iraq.
Indeed, until citizens question officials, the news media mantra is that the public must be supportive of official actions, because no one has spoken up. I don’t know what the outcome will be of this standoff between a grieving mother and a vacationing president, but it is quite clear that Cindy Sheehan jolted the news media out of the summer doldrums of rehashes of the trials and tribulations of celebrities. With her painful, impertinent questions about why did her soldier son die in Iraq, Sheehan became more than just a quick summertime story. She became a citizen journalist, asking fundamental questions about the nature of our society.
Cindy Sheehan thereby joined a deep tradition in America, starting with the Committees of Correspondence that in the 1770s spread news and views via horseback dispatches that fueled a civic revolution against the British empire. Like Tom Paine and his pamphlets, she (via her statements and daily web blog from Crawford, Texas) is prodding Americans to stand up in defense of their own humanity.
In a time of lip service to upholding the Constitution of the United States of America, Cindy Sheehan is enacting the key role of citizens that was written into the First Amendment. And she has stirred the news media to play its fundamental role of providing a forum for unfettered, vigorous public debate of vital national issues.
“The eighteenth-century American pamphleteers not only helped write the Constitution, but thought—with considerable justification—that they created the Union,” James Reston of the New York Times thundered in a speech berating his profession to challenge the Vietnam war claims of another president from Texas. “The press has one extremely important job to do. We must try to keep the issues for decision clearly before the people, a task which is not really being done in the present jumble of the average American newspaper or news program.”
Now the “artillery of the press,” as Thomas Jefferson (and then Reston) called the news media that covers national affairs, has weighed in. It will soon move on, like a thunderstorm lashing the plains. But the vital issue that Cindy Sheehan has raised is in the air, her cry of alarm is in the saddle, riding from town to town on the hoof beats of a national discussion.