Last night, about 200 people gathered for the Knight Esserman Awards, a fund that recognizes the best of South Florida journalism each year. It was a glittery evening at the Knight Concert Hall, with hors d’oeuvres and champagne. Not quite the Oscars, but you get the picture.
I was honored to have been a finalist and to stand in the company of outstanding investigative journalists from places like the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald, Telemundo and others. Many are longtime friends. Congratulations to these often unsung heroes!
But on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, I had this nagging feeling of dread. Kind of like being at a party on the top deck of the Titanic.
The Esserman family is to be commended for establishing this prize and the Knight Foundation is working so hard to foster quality news reporting across the nation. But as the United Nations chief Antonio Guterres noted yesterday, attacks on press freedoms are increasing, not decreasing. And they are increasing on all fronts: physical, legal, and economic.
–Killings of journalists jumped 50% in 2022
–New laws being passed worldwide — including Florida — are making it harder to dig out facts.
–The news industry continues to collapse. Last month, the Miami Herald told its union there would be a new round of layoffs, and reporters tell me the days of the print paper may be numbered under its hedge fund ownership.
And lest you think things are peachy keen here in Key Biscayne, there are troubling signs in the Island Paradise, too. A Christian nationalist-linked group started a “newsletter” that attacked a candidate for office with distorted information, and last week, a KBI reporter was angrily confronted at the Paradise Park opening about a news story he’d written. This comes on top of death threats made to this writer that police could do little about.
Local government is far from perfect. While I’m not suggesting it’s dire, routine public records requests to Key Biscayne officials linger for weeks or are ignored. Sometimes, officials question (illegally) why the information is sought.
Island voters approved an open meetings provision last November overwhelmingly, but so far, the Village Council has not even taken the matter up. And who could forget the absurd expulsion of a reporter and a citizen from noticed open meetings, actions done by prior councils or mayors. No apologies for the former — and no reason to think it could not happen again if a flimsy excuse presented itself.
The attacks on press freedom, large and small, are actually attacks on accountability and the democratic system itself. They come in many forms, like the Legislature’s recent hiding of the governor’s travel records, or a bill — likely unconstitutional — to chill free speech with libel laws that would turn snarky WhatsApp chat posts into grounds for costly litigation.
All of that is downright depressing, so there was a reason for my lack of ebullience at the award ceremony.
But this morning, I woke up and realized that we, as a world, have been much worse off in the past.
I realized that there are generous, committed people, like the Essermans, who treasure news reporting and are working to put nonprofit news on a stronger footing. I realized that where there are fires, there are also firefighters.
And I realized most of all, that there are readers like you, who value the work of this tiny and still-growing organization, Miami Fourth Estate.
So, celebrate World Press Freedom Day with me and clink a virtual glass — while keeping your eyes open and your hearts stout for the challenges ahead.
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Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.