For the second-consecutive year, a Rowland Hall student has taken home the grand prize in the middle school category of the McCarthey Family Foundation’s Lecture Series Essay Contest. Eighth grader Omar Alsolaiman won $1,500 for his cogent interpretation of a famous Walter Cronkite quote on how freedom of the press is the bedrock of democracy.
Omar entered the contest because he thought it would be fun, he said, and a good opportunity to learn more about the Constitution and our rights. In the process of crafting his submission, he discovered a lot about the topic and his own writing style. “I learned that I prefer writing a detailed outline that allows me to organize my thoughts and then practically copy and paste them into the final essay,” he said. “I also learned that I am often a writer who struggles to ‘cut the fat.’” But cut the fat, he did: Omar’s essay clocked in at 493 words, just under the competition’s 500-word limit. He was surprised, excited, and grateful, he said, to learn his hard work paid off with a win.
In addition to Omar’s win, seventh grader Aiden Gandhi and senior Kajal Ganesh landed finalist nods in their respective categories. Aiden was also a finalist last year.
In addition to Omar’s win, seventh grader Aiden Gandhi and senior Kajal Ganesh landed finalist nods in their respective categories. Aiden was also a finalist last year, when then-eighth-grader Arden Louchheim won. Read last year’s story.
The total number of contest submissions grew to 456 this year, up from 400 last year, and the number of middle school entries doubled. Foundation Trustee Philip G. McCarthey—also the vice chair of Rowland Hall’s Board of Trustees—complimented the quality of submissions. "The essays reflected an exceptionally well-informed student population keenly aware of the challenges facing press freedom in our society today,” he said.
Omar will be recognized during the November 9 McCarthey Family Foundation Lecture by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and presidential historian Jon Meacham. Rowland Hall hosts this popular annual event but that doesn’t factor into the contest: judges aren’t told essayists’ names or schools.
Below is Omar’s essay, unedited by Rowland Hall.
Views expressed in the following essay are those of the writer and don't necessarily represent those of Rowland Hall and its employees.
Essay Question for Utah Students in Grades Six Through Eight
“Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.” —Walter Cronkite
In an essay of no more than 500 words, (1) explain the meaning of this quote and (2) provide examples to support your explanation.
By Omar Alsolaiman, Rowland Hall eighth grader
We inherited our democratic government from people who believed that freedom of the press was valuable enough to be enshrined in the Bill of Rights. The American belief in this right dates all the way back to a time even before America in one of the most famous pre-colonial trials, the Zenger Trial. Peter Zenger, an immigrant in New York, published articles critical of the royal governor William Cosby. Cosby was so angered that he charged Zenger with libel and jailed him, a strategy that backfired when the public supported Zenger. The jury quickly freed him, establishing that in a democratic society, anything that could be proved could be published.
History proves Walter Cronkite right; freedom of the press came before American democracy. But to truly understand his quote, we need to understand the two main reasons that freedom of the press is so essential to democracy. First, the power of the press can expand democracy. Secondly, democracy is about the ability of communities to make informed decisions according to what they want. Without a free press, the people can be kept in the dark about the issues that affect their communities.
Democracy is about the ability of communities to make informed decisions according to what they want. Without a free press, the people can be kept in the dark about the issues that affect their communities.—Omar Alsolaiman
Throughout American history, the press has been a tool for expanding the ability of people to participate in democracy, allowing the U.S. to become more democratic over time. David Graham Phillips was a muckraker, a term for journalists who exposed problems and advocated for solutions during the early 20th century. In The Treason of the Senate, he exposed the corruption of the United States Senate at the time which eventually led to the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, an amendment that established a popular election for senators. In this way, freedom of the press allowed for an expansion of democracy, handing more power to the people. The amendment made corruption more difficult since senators needed to rely on the support of many people, not just a few state legislators.
It is not only national journalism that matters though. The communities we live in each have their own problems which can’t be solved without exposure through the press. In 2017, Rebecca Liebson, a student reporter at Stony Brook University broke the story that the administration would be cutting their budget, many different departments, and laying off over 20 professors from the school. The campus became outraged by this plan which would not have been exposed without Liebson. The administration attempted to scare her into silence. However, this only proves the power of the press. Stony Brook wanted to preserve its reputation while doing unpopular things, hiding the truth from the people who could punish it by leaving, not donating, or protesting. Democracies only work when people like Liebson do their civic duty to keep people informed about what goes on in their communities. Leaders always prefer their actions happen in the dark so that they can encounter no opposition, but as Justice Brandeis said, “sunlight . . . is the best disinfectant.”
Top photo: From left, seventh grader Aiden Gandhi, eighth grader Omar Alsolaiman, and senior Kajal Ganesh.