Freedom Of The Press – Is The Fourth Estate Alive and Well and Can It Survive This Century?

I was living in a cozy Washington, DC suburb when a bomb exploded on the Senate side of the US Capitol – a building my grandfather worked in for over 30 years – in the early morning hours of March 1, 1971.

An anti-war group calling themselves The Weathermen (Underground) claimed credit for the bombing. No arrests followed as the trail went cold.

I recently came across an old article in Rolling Stone Magazine about a writer who had been approached by a man calling himself John the Archivist and claimed to be a member of the Weathermen.  The group wanted the details of the plot to be published in a book and they were looking for a writer.  It was an important story for the time and the writer wanted to do the book but he would have to verify the material to be sure it was authentic.  He was given access to tape recordings, photographs, and a detailed diary of the group’s plot.  When Rolling Stone journalist, Timothy Ferris sat down to interview the writer, they knew that if the material was verified, they could both end up in jail for a very long time unless they revealed their sources if called upon by a Grand Jury to do so. (ref. Rolling Stone Magazine, Apr 26, 1973: A Special Report: Is The Free Press In Danger, by Timothy Ferris)

Journalists have tried to argue, often in vain, that they should not be compelled by the courts to reveal sources.  The credibility of the press depends on confidentiality and the perception of its independence.  The press does not exist to do the work of prosecutors and law enforcement.  They are at risk of their credibility, reputation, livelihood, and sometimes their lives if they can’t rely on Shield Laws for protection.

Denigration of the press and journalists, in particular, has become a favorite past time in today’s highly charged and politically partisan environment.  With the current administration’s animous continually being served up like a platter of red meat to a bloodthirsty base, regular people routinely turn on the press at rally’s and speeches even while they are merely there to give coverage to events.

The White House has been highly successful in spreading its Gospel of “Fake News” rants that characterize long-standing news organizations and journalists (except those who regularly defend its policies) as nasty, evil, spawns of satin who’s sole purpose is to destroy American democracy.

Critics of today’s news media credit President Trump (including Trump himself) for coining the term “fake news.”  But the term dates back decades to a time when there was almost no oversight of journalistic ethics.

Almost a century ago Pulitzer-Prize winning author, Upton Sinclair dipped his toes into the world of social reform when he wrote an expose on journalism in 1919.  His enormous amount of disdain for media outlets run by wealthy and corrupt business tycoons along with their conservative editors inspired him to write ‘The Brass Check.”

Sinclair found these media sources, mostly newspapers and magazines, to be so biased that he accused them of promoting yellow journalism – a term used in the mid-1890s to characterize sensational journalism in the circulation war between Joseph Pulitzer‘s New York World and William Randolph Hearst‘s New York Journal. The papers engaged in sensationalizing news to drive up circulation and sell more advertising.

Editorial Cartoon of by Leon Barritt depicting Hearst and Pulitzer

Sinclair’s book sold more than 150,000 copies and stirred the industry to create the first code of ethics for journalists.

Sinclair cynically wrote,”Not hyperbolically and contemptuously, but literally and with scientific precision, we define journalism in America as the business and practice of presenting the news of the day in the interest of economic privilege.”  He helped achieve his goal of reform to hold writers, publishers, and owners accountable for what they reported and published as the day’s news.

In 1947 Robert Hutchins’ Commission On Freedom Of The Press published its report to answer the vital question of whether or not the press was in danger.  Hutchins was President and later Chancellor of the University of Chicago (1929-1951) and is considered to be a highly esteemed and well known American educator.

He launched the commission in 1942 to begin the study and scrutiny of all forms of mass media that constitute “the press.”  At the time its scope included radio, newspapers, motion pictures, magazines, and books.  The commission undertook the development of the social responsibility theory which held owners, journalists, and managers of press organizations accountable to the public.  The commission viewed the theory as a “safeguard against totalitarianism.”

The commission’s report received a great deal of praise and criticism for its lack of solutions and many critics, both within the industry and outside the press, felt that it created even more chaos and confusion.

In a nutshell, here are the five essential services the commission outlined for their “Code of Responsibility for the Press”:

  • A truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives meaning;
  • A forum for the exchange of comment and criticism;
  • The projection of the representative picture of the constituent groups in the society;
  • The presentation and clarification of the goals and values of society;
  • Full access to the day’s intelligence

The report goes on to further outline what the commission believes the government should do, what the press can do, and what the public should do.  I found it charmingly simplistic considering the years of work that went into it.  All this research and analysis were done in the name of protecting The Freedom of The Press.

The press, in this instance, is “free” as long as it is well regulated, has government and public oversight giving everyone a voice in how the press should operate – lest the government should have to step in and take control.

Members of the press did not ideally receive the report at the time, but it has been studied for decades by students of journalism worldwide and is believed to have influenced the way the press is still scrutinized and viewed today.

Not only should the press be a free, independent, and fully functioning entity, but its institutions and members, who carry a huge responsibility to the public, should be afforded all the rights and protections granted under The First Amendment.

What do we suppose would happen to our society if an institution long touted as the people’s watchdog, were suddenly hailed as the root of all evil and put under strict government control?  You have only to look at the former Soviet Union to catch a glimpse of how a non-free press would look.

As Justice Kennedy announced his resignation earlier this week, the President vows to replace him quickly and decisively with the most conservative justice he can find.  Trump’s determination underscores his desire to paint the court with a political brush and lay a path toward up-ending dozens of precedents of the last several decades, including some landmark cases that offer certain protections to the free press.

The New York Times V. Sullivan guaranteed constitutional protection for criticism of public officials ruling that in the absence of actual malice, the press is protected against claims of libel.  The President has suggested that the rights should be removed so that there can be “huge financial penalties” imposed on the press for writing unflattering articles about public officials.  That is both “sad” and “scary!”

The Framers carefully constructed protection of the press into the foundation of our democracy to prevent powerful leaders from suppression by the government.  And without an open and free press, the public wouldn’t know if there was discord, debate, or even chaos within the halls of the legislature leaving its members marginalized and oppositionists hesitant to openly express viewpoints.  An atmosphere of self-censorship within our government, without scrutiny from a free press, creates an illusion of undisputed, unanimous party support.

In memory of Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, John McNamara, Gerald Fischman, and Rebecca Smith –  Capital Gazette



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