August 18, 2004

Congress shall make no law

There is an "ominous trend for journalists" afoot in the land, reports the New York Times - a systematic attack on the "fundamental protections for the gathering and publishing of news that had been generally viewed as settled since the Watergate era."

This is dangerous business for journalists because the First Amendment, and its various court-supported extensions such as shield laws and prohibitions on prior restraint, is not as beloved outside of the news industry as it is within.

Barely one in six Americans understands that the First Amendment explicitly guarantees freedom of the press (see this First Amendment Center survey) and a third agrees with the statements that "the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees" and "that Americans have too much press freedom." What's too much?

"According to 41% of respondents, newspapers should not be allowed to freely criticize the U.S. military about its strategy and performance." - "Freedom takes strong stomachs," Charles C. Haynes, First Amendment Center. (Emphasis added)

No doubt this viewpoint derives partly from the inherent lack of civic introspection in the American character, which values individual liberties (I speak) more than institutional or societal ones (You cannot speak).

In an essay accompanying the above survey, Paul McMasters writes of public antipathy toward the First Amendment:

"Americans in significant numbers appear willing to regulate the speech of those they don't like, don't agree with or find offensive. Many would too casually breach the wall between church and state. There is, in these surveys, solid evidence of confusion about, if not outright hostility toward, core First Amendment rights and values." (Emphasis added.)

The relentless bludgeoning of the press from both liberals and conservatives has those in the middle - the average American - thinking the press is more of a public nuisance than a civic asset.

"More than 60% believe making up stories is a widespread problem, and just 39% think news organizations try to report without bias." - "Public: low marks for nation's press," First Amendment Center/American Journalism Review. (Emphasis added)

Add to this politically motivated press bashing a systematic effort by the Bush administration to erode or erase such journalistic tools as the Freedom of Information Act, a campaign often obscured in the cloak national security concerns, and freedom of the press in America has never been more endangered in modern times.

It's time for journalists to fight back - especially those who work for newspapers, which are the traditional guardians of open government.

First, use the editorial pages to stir public opinion, put the heat on lawmakers and challenge restrictions - especially local ones - on release of government information. Follow the lead of Nolan Finley, editorial page editor of the Detroit News, who warned that "a rapid and unprecedented growth of government secrecy is undermining the founding principles of American democracy." Those words were part of a series of editorials entitled "Losing Liberty."

Second, educate yourself and get involved. Join, support and employ the tactics of such free press groups as the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press and the First Amendment Center. Here are a couple of other organizations working for government transparency and press freedoms:

 Open the Government.
 Investigative Reporters and Editors.
 National Security Archive.
 Federation of American Scientists (Project on Government Secrecy).
Third, combat government secrecy through strong reporting. Push back with FOIA requests and court challenges when public officials declare information to be private. Conduct FOIA audits in your community. Do good work based on hard-to-get data.

Finally, practice what you preach. Open the pages of your newspapers to voices of all political persuasion. Orient the paper more toward people than toward institutions. Give the public a chance to feel that the newspaper values them as more than just digits in a circulation database so that the next time a pollster asks if the First Amendment should be junked they will see no difference between a newspaper's rights and their own.

Posted by Tim Porter at August 18, 2004 08:20 AM