Guest Column: Re: Pat Cunningham’s talk on ‘Freedom of the Press’

Pat Cunningham, local journalist and talk show host, spoke Friday, June 22, at the Second Congregational Church in Rockford. Here is a summary of his remarks.

“With Freedom of the Press come certain responsibilities.” No. Not legally, but only as a matter of corporate or personal policy. “Fair and balanced” takes into account the sensibilities of the audiences, but there is no law says the press must be unbiased. Their audiences may dwindle if they are unfair, but in fact, most early newspapers were organs of political parties. Accounts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates differed in the extreme, depending on whose newspaper you read, and the language was often offensive.

A recent poll showed 40 percent of Americans think there is too much Freedom of the Press. There is actually a “fear of freedom,” and also some feelings of “freedom for us, but not you.” A reader once contacted Pat to complain, “Your editorials are one-sided!” Pat had to explain that they were supposed to be because, along with news, the paper could also publish its own opinion.

Freedom of the Press belongs to the owner of the press. You can’t assume that someone else’s freedom is your own. Don Imus is a recent example. The talk show host made racist comments, resulting in a firestorm of outrage that persuaded his network to fire him. Some said his freedom of speech was being quashed, but he is still free to make all those comments in public or write letters to public officials and the media. He just can’t force himself on networks that don’t want him. They have their own corporate sense of responsibility. Transmitters on the public airwaves are licensed, as opposed to cable or newspapers or the Internet. Licensing imposes some standards of decency on the content of what is broadcast.

Another example would be when a college administration stops its student newspaper from printing a certain article. Some say the writer’s right to free speech has been violated. Not so, because the college owns the press, and therefore has the final decision as to what will ultimately be published. It can be sued for printing stories that are slanderous or libelous. The word “allegedly” is often used to avoid libeling a suspect in a criminal case. Or the story will read, “Police say Joe Dokes committed the crime.” Therefore, the newspaper doesn’t say he is guilty before he is proven guilty.

The war in Vietnam raged for many years before the tide of public opinion turned against it. When The New York Times and The Washington Post began publishing portions of the Pentagon Papers exposing lies by our government, the Nixon administration got a court injunction stopping them for 15 days. Then, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it amounted to “prior restraint” and was unlawful censorship. Three justices sided with Nixon, arguing it was a matter of national security.

National security would only be breached by reporting troop locations, secret technology, or other information that would clearly impede our present military efforts, not by reporting things that have already happened.

New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent time in jail over the Valerie Plame affair not because she outed Plame as a covert agent, but because she wouldn’t disclose (and never has revealed) details of her conversations with those who were suspected of outing Plame. Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney’s office claims public accessibility of records doesn’t apply to them. Denying the media such access has a chilling effect on public opinion.

NBC claims they argued for hours about whether to air the Virginia Tech killer’s tapes and notes because there was a fear that it would inspire other copycat shooting rampages. They ultimately aired the piece showing the killer with his manifesto, and the other networks (who hadn’t received the material from the killer) immediately called NBC “irresponsible.” Then, they showed it themselves.

Gannett owns 100 dailies and has certain editorial standards, but there is wide leeway given to each publisher for its policies, endorsements or non-endorsements. There is a public fear of fewer companies owning multiple radio and TV stations. The huge conglomerates make the argument that owning more stations promotes, not discourages diversity of programming. They wouldn’t want to have a lot of the same on many of their stations, because then they would be competing against themselves. However, when some big conglomerates banned the Dixie Chicks from all their channels, it was substantial punishment for their “unpatriotic” comment.

Recently, Bill Moyers reported that all the major media were early-on lapdogs for the war in Iraq, except for Knight Ridder and Simon on CBS. Questioning their patriotism was an effective tool for quashing dissent then, but it doesn’t wash anymore. The Internet blogosphere is now helping to turn that around, spreading individuals’ opinions that may eventually make it into the major media. When U.S. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) made his comment that more should’ve voted for Strom Thurmond, and we’d be better off, it was on a Thursday night. None of that Sunday’s talking head programs mentioned it, but the blogosphere had a firestorm. A week later, the major media aired the story, and the rest is history.

Expect to see some legal battles in the future, because the attitudes of audiences and judicial decisions about the responsibilities of a free press are constantly evolving.

E.J. Pagel is media secretary for the Rockford Area Libertarians.

from the Aug 1-7, 2007, issue

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