Criminalizing Journalism

Photograph Source: Matt Hrkac – CC BY 2.0

These are the prepared text for my remarks for accepting the Anti-Censorship Award at the 43rd American Book Awards, presented by the Before Columbus Foundation, at the San Francisco Public Library, on October 9, 2022. 

I hope you can bear with me, I’ve been fighting a stubborn case of Covid for the last 10 days or so. My brain is still befogged and my voice is croaking out from swampy lungs.

I’m thrilled at this recognition of our work at CounterPunch by the Before Columbus Foundation and what a bonus to be introduced for the Anti-Censorship Award by Ishmael Reed. Reed is a writer I’ve admired for 40 years or so, ever since a friend I was working with on a street painting crew in Indianapolis, during summer break from college, slipped me a copy of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down and asked me: What the hell you do make of this?

Bobby was a ravenous reader. He’d been an excellent student at Crispus Attucks High School (the great Oscar Robertson’s alma mater), but deferred college to care for his large, economically destitute family. He fed me books and records I’d never heard of that end up altering my life, from Pharoah Sanders (rest in peace) to Ishmael Reed.

I devoured Reed’s mock western over that weekend, laughing for three straight days. What did I make of it? It’s like Blazing Saddles, only funnier, better written and sharper in its takedown of every absurd myth and ritual white suburban America holds dear. (I was later to learn that Blazing Saddles owes quite an unacknowledged debt to Reed and Richard Pryor. Check it out.)

Flash forward 20 years or so, when I opened my email one morning and jumped out of my chair, as excited as Steve Martin in The Jerk, when he learns his name is printed in the new phonebook, to find in my inbox a submission to CounterPunch from Ishmael Reed!

In my giddiness, I almost immediately committed a crime against him by “quote” smoothing out his prose, rearranging a few sentences and paragraphs, tightening “the lede,” as meddlesome editors are wont to do, just to put their own imprint on a piece. I eagerly sent back his mutilated essay and swiftly got a response that sat me right back down in my chair: “Let Reed be Reed!” He was right, of course. I’d engaged in censorship by stylesheet. It’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart. And hopefully today, CounterPunch’s daily slate of stories doesn’t read like the sterile, lab-grown prose of the New Yorker or Washington Post.

We’ve tried for the last 20 years to give writers who’ve been denied a mainstream outlet not only a platform to speak but the ability to be heard and read in their own “voice”: the voice of prisoners, laborers, and immigrants, the voices of the houseless (often adjunct professors, these days), of students and victims of cop abuse, the voices of activists from Pine Ridge to the fields of the Central Valley, from the streets of Oakland to Gaza City, and the voices poets, who are largely immune from editorial abuse, if only because they work is generally ignored by the corporate media.

Obviously, this award is recognition of the work done every day by the entire CounterPunch team, especially Becky Grant, Deva Wheeler, Andrew Nofsinger and Nichole Stevens on the Lost Coast, Joshua Frank down in Long Beach and Nathaniel St. Clair in Portland. And here on my own home front, for her editorial and psychological counseling, my wife Kimberly, who as a librarian has been on the frontlines of the intensifying battle against censorship.

We are at a perilous moment in our culture, where our most fundamental rights are under assault—starting with the basic right to self-identify, to define who we are as individuals and speak our thoughts freely without reprisal from the State.

We’re witnessing books being ripped off library shelves, librarians harangued, berated and intimidated by government officials, teachers being told what they can and can’t teach and what they can and can’t say, history books being scrubbed of vexatious episodes and troublesome facts in favor of a mythologized past that synchs with the Great Patriot Narrative.

And closer to my own work as a writer and editor, journalists and their sources are being targeted by governments, especially our own, for revealing inconvenient, embarrassing and criminal acts by those very same institutions. This censorious enterprise is entirely bipartisan. Obama prosecuted more whistleblowers than Bush or Trump. At this very moment, Julian Assange is confined in a bleak cell in Belmarsh Prison (now stricken with Covid) awaiting extradition to the US on charges that could lock him away in a super-max for the rest of his life. His crime? Disclosing documents leaked to him by Chelsea Manning and others revealing atrocities committed by US forces in Iraq.

If the Biden Justice succeeds in prosecuting and convicting Assange, all kinds of prosecutorial authorities will be emboldened to come after any of the rest of us who excavate and publish stories about official corruption and villainy or film cops films as they beat the crap out of black kids. As writers and readers, we must resist these moves to criminalize journalism and to enforce a suffocating stupidity upon the population.

The inconvenient truths about our own nation’s past­­–including the very recent past–are the truths it is the most urgent to hear, to learn from and work to rectify.

Thanks to the Before Columbus Foundation and the San Francisco Public Library for being at the forefront of this struggle and for honoring our work at CounterPunch.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3