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John W. MillerMay 02, 2023
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich stands in a glass cage in a courtroom at the Moscow City Court, in Moscow, Russia, April 18, 2023. Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich stands in a glass cage in a courtroom at the Moscow City Court, in Moscow, Russia, April 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

In the month since Russia’s security service, the F.S.B., snatched Evan Gershkovich on March 29, the public conversation has centered on the threat to journalism posed by authoritarian regimes. And that’s appropriate. At least 67 journalists were killed worldwide in 2022, a 50 percent increase over 2021, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Over half of those murders took place in just three countries: Ukraine (15), Mexico (13) and Haiti (7).

It could happen here. The rhetoric around journalism during President Trump’s administration was violent and cruel. Backed by his followers, he heaped insults on reporters simply doing their jobs, calling them “terrible,” “nasty” and, a dangerous authoritarian rallying call, the “enemy of the people.” Language like that is a step toward illiberal curtaining of free speech and the kind of civic and physical violence against journalists that put Evan Gershkovich in jail.

The deeper kind of reporting that Evan Gershkovich was practicing when he was arrested in Russia is, in my mind, a practice of love.

While President Biden does not offer as much access to journalists as he should, he does declare and demonstrate proper appreciation and respect for the craft of journalism. At the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington on Saturday night, the president declared that “journalism is not a crime” and that “Evan went to report in Russia to shed light on the darkness.” The president added: “Everyone in this hall stands with you. We are working every day to secure his release, looking at opportunities and tools to bring him home.”

That’s the rhetoric. The truth is that there’s little that U.S. officials and the leaders of Evan’s employer, The Wall Street Journal, can do right now. Evan is the prisoner of an irrational regime run by a capricious and arbitrary ruler. “We’re in this for the long haul,” Journal editor Emma Tucker told CNN last week.

For many reporters, especially those at The Wall Street Journal, where I worked for 13 fruitful and almost always happy years, Evan’s arrest is personal. One thinks: What happened to this 31-year-old doing his job covering the country and economy of Russia could happen to me. Journalists are fiercely loyal to each other. We’re in this together. That’s why we’re wearing the “Free Evan” buttons.

For many reporters, especially those at The Wall Street Journal, where I worked for 13 years, Evan’s arrest is personal.

We should take this occasion to reflect on the behavior being punished. Most people can agree that arresting journalists is bad practice for any society. But it’s worth looking at the specific human act that Evan is being faulted for.

Journalists are often stereotyped as nosy and glib, offering quick takes based on minimal information. But the deeper kind of reporting that Evan was practicing—he was arrested in Yekaterinburg talking to people and deepening his understanding of the region and its industrial complex—is, in my mind, a practice of love.

Evan is my favorite kind of reporter: one, who, even when covering weighty topics like war or economic crises, seeks out people. A collection of pieces posted on the Journal’s website demonstrates his command of the Russian story and his engagement with the Russian people. To cover the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020, he got to know medical students being dispatched to treat infections after minimal training. His last story for the Journal before he was arrested, written with Georgi Kantchev, was an account of the struggles of the Russian economy. It’s a serious economic dispatch, but it also includes a profile of two brothers in Moscow running a coffee shop.

Good reporters actually care about the truth. They don’t have an agenda.

Here’s how a good reporter thinks: “I want to talk to everybody. I want to read everything. Every voice deserves a hearing. I want to tell the story after giving every person in the story a chance to offer their perspective.” At The Wall Street Journal, this is called no-surprises journalism. “Make sure the source chokes on their steak and not their corn flakes,” the standards editor used to say, meaning that we should make sure to tell every person involved about a story before it is published, giving them every chance to comment.

Good reporters carry a treasure in their hearts. That treasure is simple: They actually care about the truth. They don’t have an agenda. Knowing that you don’t have to sell anything or talk anybody into anything is deeply liberating. And when you’re interviewing a union leader, a murderer on death row, or a C.E.O. or ballplayer who makes a hundred times more money than you do, looking them in the eye and asking hard questions while knowing that you don’t have an agenda is what gives you the security to know that you’re worth just as much as they are. In journalism, as in Christianity, the truth sets you free.

I don’t think most Americans understand how much integrity reporters at good American newspapers have. Quality journalism is increasingly foreign to most people, because America has been hemorrhaging newspapers. They have become a luxury of big cities. Fewer and fewer Americans know a journalist personally. And even within newspapers that are still going concerns, technology has eroded the “incredible camaraderie” of newsroom culture, as Maureen Dowd acutely lamented this week in The New York Times.

More and more people are living their lives online. They don’t leave their homes to go talk to people. It feels increasingly weird to stop and talk to strangers, even though that’s how communities of people have lived together since homo sapiens developed a capacity for language, say, 100,000 years ago. (Just a good guess. That number is contested.)

But that’s what reporters do, breaking through silicon walls every day, creating new human, loving, connections. I like to say that journalism is stuff you can’t Google. It’s introducing the world to people, places and ideas they don’t know about. It’s facilitating encounters with the other. That’s love.

And what did Jesus do but, like a reporter, walk around talking to people?

That’s the Gospel Truth. So, in the name of love, free Evan.

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