Rowan alumnus among Time Magazine’s Persons of the Year: “The Guardians and the War on Truth”

Rowan alumnus among Time Magazine’s Persons of the Year: “The Guardians and the War on Truth”

Alumnus Phil Davis was among journalists honored as Time Magazine's Persons of the Year
AFP/Getty-Capital Gazette

In a sense, Time Magazine’s 2018 choice for Persons of the Year was not just about the individuals and groups in stark black & white images on four cover versions of the annual issue.

Those pictured are journalists, workaday reporters and internationally known columnists and correspondents, whose livelihoods cost them their lives and their freedom, or the lives and freedom of colleagues, but in a broader sense they represent journalists everywhere, women and men who increasingly find themselves in danger.

Included on the magazine’s covers are Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist murdered at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey Oct. 2, allegedly at the instruction of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

A second cover shows some of the newsroom survivors from the June 28 shootings at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., where Rowan alumnus Phil Davis, a reporter, was on duty but not injured. The attack left five employees dead.

A third cover features two Reuters reporters who were jailed for reporting about the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, work that put them at odds with the Myanmar regime.

The fourth cover features journalist Maria Ressa, of the Philippine news site Rappler, whose arrest was widely viewed as part of a wider crackdown on dissent by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

In America, as around the world, journalism remains a rewarding profession but one that seems increasingly under assault, from the repeated chants and tweets by President Donald Trump that paint journalists as “enemies of the people” to dictators such as Duterte who lock up reporters simply for broadcasting or printing the news.


Caught in the crossfire

Unfortunately, the killing, maiming and jailing of journalists is not new, but this year’s attack at the Gazette hit horrifyingly close to home. Davis, a 2011 journalism graduate, was in the Gazette newsroom that warm Thursday in June when the shooting began and took cover under a desk.

Though likely in shock, Davis (at right) live tweeted about the incident after police breeched the newsroom and moved survivors to a temporary location, a bank building across the street.

“I think I might have been the only one who still had a phone,” said Davis, a police and courts reporter who played down media accounts that he tweeted throughout the rampage. “Because we were witnesses, the police kind of cordoned us off. They eventually took us to the station and spoke with us there.”

Davis, who gained experience after college reporting for the Gloucester County Times (now the South Jersey Times), said he does not blame Trump alone, as some of the president’s critics have, for stirring up violence against members of the media. Guards sometimes escort journalists at the president’s rallies and, in October, pipe bombs were delivered to the New York offices of CNN and numerous other Trump critics.

“It’s difficult when someone is saying your job title is in and of itself evil,” he said. “But this kind of talk, the villainization of the media, didn’t start with him. Conservative news radio has done it for years. Do I wish he would stop? Sure I do. I think this is a valiant profession and one that should be supported but I’m not going to place it all on him.”


Recognition as a Time magazine “Person of the Year”

Davis, who started college as an engineering major, said his freshman year self would not believe it if he had been told where his career would take him.

“This is quite the different path,” he said. “If you had told the 18-year-old me that I would be honored nationally for writing, I’m not sure I would have believed you. It’s weird and conflicting.”

Davis said that a few weeks after the shooting he and some colleagues visited the Newseum in Washington where, among the many exhibits, they came upon a wall that memorializes journalists killed in the performance of their job.

“It’s pretty expansive,” he said, “and it puts it into perspective how regularly this happens. As I said, (Time’s recognition) is kind of conflicting to me. I’m proud to be a part of a newsroom that’s recognized but this isn’t a one-off. There are threats made to journalists all the time.”

According to a Reporters Without Borders report, journalists faced “unprecedented hostility” in 2018, a year in which 80 journalists, including Davis’s five colleagues, were killed. Lost in that incident were editorial page editor Gerald Fischman, 61; editor and features columnist Rob Hiaasen, 59; sports reporter and editor John McNamara, 56; local news reporter and columnist Wendi Winters, 65; and sales assistant Rebecca Smith, 34.


“Important for democracy”

Speaking to the power, and importance, of a working press for a functioning democracy, Thomas Jefferson once famously said, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Echoing that sentiment, Rowan Journalism Chair Mark Berkey-Gerard said journalists, especially community reporters like Davis, provide a critical bulwark to functioning democracies by helping to keep honest the powers that be.

“It’s a tough business but journalism can also be a calling,” Berkey-Gerard said. “Many do it because they realize the important role journalists play in their community and in democracy, at the local level and all the way to the national and worldwide level.”

He said Time’s recognition of journalism is important because it reflects “a growing recognition of the value of it, of the people who continue to do this work in the face of great risk. That’s what Time is pointing to.”

Associate Professor Kathryn Quigley, who not only taught Davis but who supervised his internship at the Vineland Daily Journal and has kept in touch with him throughout his career, said news of the Capital Gazette attack was beyond shocking.

“I was horrified and heartbroken when I found out Phil was in the newsroom during the shooting,” she said. “But I am so very proud of him and his colleagues for supporting each other and upholding the memory of those journalists who died. More importantly, I am heartened at how they ‘put out a damn paper’ every single day since.”