A little before dawn on Feb. 28, 1989, firebomb-wielding attackers laid siege to The Riverdale Press offices on Broadway, reportedly after the newspaper defended Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel “The Satanic Verses.”
Now, the press again is caught in the crosshairs, but facing a new, formidable — and some might say unprecedented — set of threats amid a turbulent sociopolitical landscape where crisis seems to be the norm. Amid such chaos, questions about the power of the First Amendment, focusing on what “free press” really means — not just in the United States, but globally — come starkly into focus.
Early theories reportedly linked the 1989 firebombing to then co-publisher Buddy Stein’s editorial just days before rebuking major bookstore chains for removing from their shelves copies of Rushdie’s novel. Widely regarded as one of the most acclaimed — and most controversial — ever written, it sparked a string of book bans, burnings, blasphemy accusations, and even what came to be known as the “Rushdie Affair,” when Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa to Muslims all over the world ordering Rushdie’s death, sending the novelist into hiding for nearly a decade.
While some bigger bookstores yanked the explosive tome from their shelves, a local bookshop owner in Riverdale decided to stock it.
Hunting for an editorial for The Press, Stein interviewed the store’s owner. And although Stein reportedly hadn’t read “The Satanic Versus,” his editorial fiercely defended Americans’ right to do so.
“To suppress a book or punish an idea is to express contempt for the people who read the book or consider the idea,” Stein wrote. “In preferring the logic of the executioner to the logic of debate, the book-burners and the Ayatollah Khomeini display their distrust for the principle on which self-government rests, the wisdom and virtue of ordinary people.”
“Americans are fighting back in the most appropriate way possible, by reading and talking about Mr. Rushdie’s book,” Stein continued. “But the cowardly connivance of the big book chains with the ayatollah is placing obstacles in the way of this counterattack.”
Five days later, Stein still refused to be silenced, even as flames melted his newspaper’s phones and computers, decimated notebooks and files. An intrepid Stein shifted his editing operation to an offsite production facility on West 238th Street, where he and his staff somehow managed to crank out the paper on time.
Although no arrest was ever made, the FBI reportedly concluded the Rushdie editorial had motivated the assailants.
While Stein’s heroics paid off — nine years later he won The Press a Pulitzer Prize for his editorial writing — three decades after the firebombing, journalists and their readers still grapple with fundamental questions about freedom of the press in the face of sometimes-deadly checks.
Yet it’s those rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution that allow reporters — or pretty much anyone — to continue dipping into that proverbial barrel of ink to keep the public informed, said Nicholas Gilewicz, an assistant professor who teaches journalism at Manhattan College.
“The reason our journalism is still so vibrant, even at a time of economic struggle in the industry, are those protections,” Gilewicz said. “Anybody can now, technologically, start journalism outlets. There’s this lower barrier to entry. We have the same rights as citizens” to report the news — aided, too, by smartphones and social media — as it bubbles up from the street.
“That is pretty remarkable,” Gilewicz said. But there’s also a major problem at the moment. “There’s active antagonism toward news media in the U.S., the kind we haven’t seen from a presidential administration since the Nixon era, since there were attempts to devalue what the press was doing,” referring to another Republican president who launched a nasty crusade against the media.
“Now you have President Trump insisting that pretty centrist news outlets are highly biased in publishing ‘fake news,’ by which he means things that are untrue,” when in fact, sometimes it’s just the opposite, the professor said.
Actually, when it comes to free press under siege, it’s worsened since that fateful morning for The Press 30 years ago, said Eileen Markey, a lecturer at Lehman College and journalist who’s spent much of her career covering urban poverty and public policy in the city.
“The environment for the First Amendment is more difficult now than it was in 1989,” Markey said, when “more people in the U.S., shared a consensus that the rights to free speech were paramount, that journalists and artists and writers absolutely should be able to do — and should be protected in — their creative and free publishing endeavors. That consensus is not held as strongly anymore.”
But the fact the First Amendment, as Markey sees it, is questioned by more people today than it has been in the past — owing in no small part to the current president’s anti-press attacks — makes the role of media outlets even more crucial.
“It’s important for newspapers to be clear in their intention,” Markey said. That is, to “defend the First Amendment by infusing the time-tested techniques of high-quality journalism, where we’re looking for new information and respecting nuance.”
Yet it’s also important to keep in mind an attack against journalists’ right to print also is a perniciously broader offensive against their readers’ right to know, said Alexandra Ellerbeck, North American program coordinator at the independent nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists.
“Free expression is the ability to have true information about what is happening,” Ellerbeck said. “To see something and share that information freely, without being afraid that you will be put in prison or killed or injured.”
That freedom is “fundamental to living in an open society,” she added. “It’s fundamental to living in a democracy. When communities don’t have access to free information or to journalism because the environment is too oppressive” it creates a kind of breeding ground for gross human rights abuses, corruption or worse.
“It’s a very scary place to be,” Ellerbeck said.
To be sure, it’s a struggle that plays out across the globe, in wildly varying degrees. Yet when it comes to protecting the very fabric of free society on a local level, community newspapers are on the front line of the fight, Gilewicz said. Because the free speech values they uphold by reporting the news are “not just local values,” but broader “journalistic and American values.”
“The idea that freedom of speech is worth defending is that it’s worth defending at the national level and the local level, at the bookstore around the corner and the library,” he said. “These are all things that local papers help members of their community understand and apply.”