The Digital Journalist
Patriot on Board
March 2005

by Peter Howe

Do you remember those yellow diamonds that everyone had in their car windows that said: Baby on Board? They used to drive me mad. First of all I didn't know what I was supposed to do with the information. Did the parents want me to applaud as I overtook? Was it a cautionary message meant to warn me that the presence of a screaming infant may make the driver erratic? Was I supposed to make more babies myself so that I could join this club? I never found out, but it wasn't this enigma that drove me nuts. What really made me crazy was that it was a massive act of conformity across the nation, and like most acts of conformity it was pretty unthinking. I suspect that those who displayed them never really considered why they did it: "we've got a baby, it's on board - hey, let's put up a yellow diamond." Like all fads they gradually disappeared, and peace had just been restored to the highways when suddenly there were magnetic ribbons everywhere that either proclaimed "Support Our Troops" or "God Bless America." Now don't get me wrong, I've nothing against babies providing that they're not within 10 rows of me on a plane. I also believe we should support our troops, although the way I would do it is to not send them into unnecessary and un-winnable wars in the first place. I do admit that whenever I see the words "God Bless America" I always think the country must have just sneezed. But personally I find the mindless patriotism that has seized this country as offensive as the mindless parenthood that it seems to have supplanted.

Of course, I'm sure that I will get some nasty e-mails for saying this in a public forum because we seem to be living at a time when to question anything about gestures such as these is tantamount to treachery. I feel that I'm caught nowadays between the political correctness of the left and the patriotic correctness of the right, and I don't like either. In both cases it's people telling me how to think, and the whole point of a democracy, it seems to me, is to be allowed to think how and as you like. After all, the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that I can have unpopular opinions without being penalized for them in any way, although the First Amendment itself seems to be going the way of the yellow baby diamond.

Maybe it was also a fad that we're finally getting over. I base this gloomy assessment on a recently published report that should give libertarians some sleepless nights. It was sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, conducted by researchers from the University of Connecticut, and published under the title "Future of the First Amendment: What America's High School Students Think About Their Freedoms." This was an extensive study involving more than 100,000 students, and 8,000 teachers at 544 schools. The results are alarming, to say the least. Here are some of the revelations it contains:

  • - Nearly three-quarters of the students interviewed either don't know how they feel about the First Amendment or take it for granted
  • - 75% of them incorrectly think that flag burning is illegal
  • - More than a third of all students think that First Amendment rights go too far
  • - About half the students interviewed thought that the government can censor indecent material on the Internet
  • - 40% of high schools that do not have student newspapers eliminated them in the last five years

The overall impression of the report is that this subject is not of much interest to today's high school population, and has little, if any, importance for them. Now I'm sure that if you look back on your years in high school you may say that the same thing applied then, but, even if this is true, it doesn't mean it's not a problem that the next generation of voting Americans neither knows about, cares about, or are even taught about one of the fundamental freedoms of the Constitution, without which there can be no democracy. If you think this doesn't matter remember that the much-ballyhooed youth vote in the recent election never materialized. At the same time that we're spending upwards of 90 billion dollars to install democracy in a small Middle-Eastern country, we're letting it die on the vine in our own. For me, one of the most distressing aspects of the war on terrorism is that we are willingly diluting the very freedoms that distinguish our form of government from those dictatorships and theocracies that we oppose. When the next terrorist attack on American soil happens, as it surely will, we will eagerly give away even more. What Roosevelt said about fear is as true today as when he said it in 1933.

It seems to me that as journalists we have a special duty to uphold the rights outlined in the First Amendment, because after all we have one of the few jobs guaranteed under its protection. If you go to the report's Web site,, the last frame of the Flash intro asks, "So what are YOU gonna do about it?" It's a good question, and one that we would be wise to ponder. One thing that we can do, of course, is to continue to practice our craft, passionately and without fear or favor. In this case practice may not make perfect, but it will help make permanent. Those of us who are journalists today are not only role models for those who will succeed us, but also standard bearers for a free and independent press, and how we are viewed is to a large extent how the First Amendment is viewed.

The other thing that we can do is to share our knowledge and experience with high school students like the ones in the study. I know from a lifetime of listening to them that photojournalists have great stories, and that kids love stories. Your experiences, whether in Iraq or your local emergency room, are going to resonate with them far more than their teacher's presentation on constitutional history. The more that they understand and are enthralled by the job you do the less likely they are to undervalue it. The International Center of Photography in New York has a wonderful program for inner city kids in the South Bronx called ICP@The Point, which they run in partnership with The Point Community Development Center. The photographic programs held here help these young people form a sense of their own identity and that of their community. I don't know, but I suspect that those who have participated in them have a far healthier respect for the First Amendment than many of their more privileged peers in the suburbs that have no such opportunities.

One of the responsibilities that we all have nowadays is to be activists. Most of the photographers whose work I really admire have come to the realization at some point during their careers that the story doesn't end with the photographs; in some ways they're the starting point. Photojournalism can be so much more effective if its authors take it upon themselves to be the advocates of their stories, in the way that Ed Kashi spends his time highlighting the plight of seniors in our society, or Paula Lerner raises awareness of breast cancer through both her photography and personal experience of the disease. I think it is vital for us to also be activists for our profession while we still have one. For so many years we have heard people trashing journalism with the same lack of thought that they put yellow diamonds in their car windows, simply because other people do the same. We've rolled our eyes, sighed, and carried on, allowing the half-truths and distortions to go unchallenged. In kinder, gentler times this was acceptable, but during the age of the right-wing fundamentalism, the attack campaigns of Mr. Rove and his swarthy crew of Swift Boat Veterans, silence is dangerous.

To quote Winston Churchill, "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried from time to time." It's also a form of government that we shouldn't take for granted just because we've been fortunate enough to not know any other. Without a free and fearless press, democracy doesn't work, but without democracy we don't work either, except as tedious functionaries toeing the party line. If high school students are as ignorant of and uncaring for the First Amendment as the report suggests, we could be in for a long period of unemployment, unless we do something about it. The need to do what we as photojournalists do is greater than ever as this pall of fear and apathy settles over the country. We can use our skills as photographers to fight the forces of ignorance by showing the reality of the lives of Muslims, gay couples or single mothers, but we need to go beyond that and to let no aspersion on our profession or beliefs go unchallenged, and let no opportunity pass to affirm the value of what we do, and the value of freedom of expression, freedom of choice, and freedom of dissent. Whether we do this through talking to high school students, writing letters to the editor, or even joining the local book club, we have to carry the message that journalists are true champions of democracy, and as such are real patriots, defending our society from those who would destroy it both internally as well as externally. Without action activism is just another ism.

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor