Friday, August 11, 2006

Press, free press and congress

Newspaper headlines we will never see!
(A couple months ago)


The American Society of Newspaper Editors has a statement that ends with: “These principles are intended to preserve, protect and strengthen the bond of trust and respect between American journalists and the American people, a bond that is essential to sustain the grant of freedom entrusted to both by the nation’s founders.” The ASNE further states: “Freedom of the press belongs to the people. It must be defended against encroachment or assault from any quarter, public or private. Journalists must be constantly alert to see that the public’s business is conducted in public. They must be vigilant against all who would exploit the press for selfish purposes.”

If the press were meeting the responsibility of freedom entrusted to it why then would so many subscribers be going to other sources for news. Why would there be so many objections from a large segment of the population about bias. Why would there be so many objections published about bias and unfair coverage?

However, I do not think the press wants to distort the news but they seem to be guided by their own societal influences. In our major cities we have some fine entrepreneurs who are leaders in their community. If you want to work for them or receive some other benefit from them you will be careful to understand their viewpoint and might even emulate it. At the very least you are not going to argue with them. Therefore, that person will tend to think that his or her viewpoint reflects the majority viewpoint of the community. When this influence is apparent in the press or other media the leaders and those around them can easily feel they express the majority opinion when in fact, commitment to that opinion might be shallow.

The right to freedom of the press is found in The Bill of Rights, Amendment #1.
It is part of a longer sentence and includes other directives so look for yourself and see if you agree that it is a very simple statement without any explanation or limitations:

Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.

Possibly the framers were considering an event such as a building burning down or a duel between two men of distinction and they wisely decided and the states agreed that congress would not enact any laws that restricted the transference of that information to us. These were prudent men, in simpler times wanting to convey information to their citizens.
Madison’s notes were simple and his draft read: “….and the freedom of the press as one of the great bulwarks of liberty shall be inviolable.” This was changed by the committee,
“The freedom of …and of the press…shall not be infringed” This was again changed by the senate to its present form.
There is no indication of debate about the subject other than Madison warning against abstract propositions and keeping it simple to aid ratification.
My impression of case law and decisions by the supreme court have been related to supporting the principle of the press having access to records and that is not our problem.
Our problem is the lack of complete disclosure of the viewpoint of all sides or the subtle repetition of a favorite viewpoint.
There were also prudent gentlemen concerning themselves with ethics of various situations, especially in medicine and law. Restrictive codes of ethics were developed by the press and these have given me guidance in my comments.

Before we proceed with the ethics we should consider the times and conditions related to the founding of our constitution.
In the 1770’s our country faced a serious turmoil caused by the throwing off of British rule, taxation, trade restrictions and westward expansion. However, the loss of these restrictions also caused the loss of protection and markets provided by the Brits. My most enjoyable and concise source of this information has been “A Brilliant Solution” by historian and author Carol Berkin, (Harcourt 2003). Dr. Berkin writes an enlightening view of the conditions at the time of the preparation of our constitution and I urge you to obtain and read the results of her research. She describes the controversies that developed between the states, some tariffs established, the difficulties of doing commerce and the frustration that brought the original states to band together as a confederation and then establish a constitution which became law when ratified by just 9 states with large rural areas.

When the decision was made to adopt such a simplistic directive that congress will not abridge the freedom of the press I wanted to understand what the supporters had in mind and that led me to an 1800 dictionary to define “press” which is related to the business of publishing the “News”. The “news” is defined as a previously unreported event. These are not clues that help me understand their simple, all inclusive action.

During my research I looked at the history of codes of ethics and that seems to be a historical thread of interest. It is quite possible that the early press recognized the void left by no clear definition of the press and so the press attempted to define itself so that by following some standards of performance it would preclude the investigation or consideration by the congress.
If we assume this is the reason for establishing the codes of ethics then we see a clear and interesting pattern with a code that has defined the operation of the press.
You can read the statement of principles of the American Society of Newspaper Editors on line. Just search newspaper code of ethics for many resources. I did find the Olympian in Washington was an easy summary list to review. and the Virginian Pilot also had an interesting presentation. You want to look at the New York and Los Angeles Times codes of ethics although it appears these might have been revised in recent years.
Finding the older, more original codes helps to give the early thinking of how the press wanted itself to be considered.

When you review these codes you understand the definition the press gave itself. It established its identity and standards to meet so that the public could be assured of receiving complete and unbiased news from a group worthy of the protection of our constitution.

If the press does not meet the standards and definition of its process as defined by itself, does it then fail to meet the definition in the constitution and therefore be subject to standards to be enacted by congress? The first amendment says congress will make no laws that abridge the freedom of the press, but if the press fails to meet the standards established by the press itself does it then fail to meet the definition of the term press in the first amendment and is therefore eligible for control by the congress?

Examples from a code of ethics:
“A fair-minded reader of Times news coverage should not be able to discern the private opinions of those who contributed to that coverage, or to infer that the newspaper is promoting any agenda.”
“Reporters should try genuinely to understand all points of view.”
“People who will be shown in an adverse light in an article must be given a meaningful opportunity to defend themselves.”
“Relying in print on unnamed sources should be a last resort,…”
“Fabrication of any type is unacceptable.”
“The Times does not identify suspects of criminal investigations who have not been charged or arrested.” ….”If someone we have identified as a suspect ultimately is not charged, we should make that known in a follow-up story. The follow-up should be played comparably to the original story if possible.”
“Editorial employees may not use their positions at the paper to promote personal agendas or causes. Nor should they allow their outside activities to undermine the impartiality of Times coverage. In fact or in appearance.”
“Staff members may not engage in political advocacy-as members of a campaign or an organization specifically concerned with political change. Nor may they contribute money to a partisan campaign or candidate.” (Note: visit the LA Times)

The next consideration is to evaluate the performance of the press over the past few years. A great way to review how well the press has performed is to read the book “Blog” by Hugh Hewitt. (Nelson Press, 2005). It is an easy and enjoyable read and anyone interested in this subject will enjoy it..

Mr. Hewitt is a radio show host, a professor of law at Chapman University Law School, author of several books, columnist and a blogger. He can be found at His book and his web site will give many examples of media distortion and bias. If you have reviewed the codes of ethics you will see that the press is not meeting its own standards. Other media such as television and the internet do not have the sophisticated codes such as are found in the press so it is not likely that they could be included in the action being discussed.

Mr. Hewitt’s book will give well documented examples of how the bloggers have made many of these failures of the press and the media obvious to the public and resulted in changes in the position of those involved. Maybe bloggers can be the safety control of the media but I think the media and the press must recognize their unique position and do something to make changes. If they do not make corrections soon, I feel there is justification to amend the constitution to define the certain limits, relying heavily on the standards established by the standards of the media itself, their code of ethics and I feel as long as the change is confined to the handling of the news, not the access to the news it should receive a favorable hearing before the courts.

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