Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
— The First Amendment
to the U.S. Constitution
The First Amendment is the most glorious thing about the United States. It is the cornerstone of liberty and freedom. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, dissenting in a 1951 case, wrote, “I have always believed that the First Amendment is the keystone of our government, that the freedoms it guarantees provide the best insurance against destruction of all freedom.”
The First Amendment is a radical statement. Its command is absolute: no law. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote that it “reads more like a dream than a law,” noting that few other countries have “been crazy enough to include such a dream among its legal documents.”
Far more nations should be “crazy enough.”
Take France. In 2004, a French court fined a magazine $375,000 for a review in which a wine critic called Beaujolais Nouveau vin de merde (shit wine). “By debasing Beaujolais to the point of scatology and likening it to excrement,” the French judge ruled, the writer had “seriously abused the freedom of speech.” The U.S. First Amendment protects such “abuse.”
Take Austria. A court in Vienna recently sentenced a British historian, David Irving, to three years in prison for denying the Holocaust. Irving was woefully wrong, but three years in jail for being ahistorical?
And Turkey. An Istanbul court tried five newspaper columnists for “insulting” the country’s courts: The “Istanbul Five” attacked court rulings that tried to block an academic conference on the Armenian genocide, a verboten topic in Turkey.
And so it goes in far too many nations.
In America, critics are entitled to be abusive or mistaken in matters concerning public figures and the government without being fined or jailed. As Justice William O. Douglas said, the First Amendment is not designed to dispense tranquilizers. Or, in the words of novelist Salman Rushdie, himself the target of a fatwa death penalty for writing critically about Islam: “The moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.”
The press is far freer in America than it is in Britain, which has an Official Secrets Act that forbids former intelligence officers from leaking to the press or publishing books about anything they did while in government service. Such a law would be unconstitutional in America. As one of the British law lords said about an official-secrets case: “In a free society, there is a continuing public interest in seeing that the workings of government are open to scrutiny and criticism.”
Perhaps it is a stretch to say that one-half the world’s problems are caused by religion and the other half caused by the media. But it certainly is true that the media has become a huge problem in America.
One facet of the problem was outlined by Jim Hightower in his newsletter, “The Hightower Lowdown”: “A handful of self-serving corporate fiefdoms now control practically all of America’s mass-market sources of news and information. General Electric owns NBC, Disney owns ABC, Viacom owns CBS, News Corp. owns Fox, and Time-Warner owns CNN. These five corporations have a lock on TV news.”
The result of the massive media consolidation of the past two decades is that only news that meets the mainstream media-establishment standard reaches the bulk of American people. Siblings Amy and David Goodman in their book The Exception to the Rulers wrote, “These are not media that are serving a democratic society ... This is a well-oiled propaganda machine that is repackaging government spin and passing it off as journalism.” `Read the Current interview with Amy Goodman, page 9.`
Leftist publications like The Nation and The Progressive constantly criticize U.S. domestic and international policies but have skimpy circulations and nil impact, while dissenting voices are often blocked by the mainstream media.
In 2004, the Walt Disney Co. stopped its Miramax division from distributing a documentary film that was critical of President Bush. At least two theater chains refused to show the film. The movie, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, won the top award at Cannes that year.
Clear Channel was happy to carry shock jock Howard Stern when he was talking coarsely about sex. But when Stern began to speak bluntly about politics, urging listeners not to vote for Bush in 2004, the San Antonio-based media empire dropped him.
As press critic Robert McChesney wrote, “The U.S. media have ... abandoned their obligation to inform the public in a brazen pursuit of profits.” Profits are more important than good newspapering and good broadcasting, a profound truth that ought to be hammered home to students in journalism-school ethics classes.
In a recent column for online news source Truthout, Jeff Cohen cited the case of John Karr, a school teacher who fantasized that he had such passionate consensual sex with 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey that he accidentally killed her. “For 10 days, TV news fixated on this imposter-culprit as if he were a world figure,” Cohen wrote. “TV news ignored important stories of war, environmental degradation, and corruption. Instead, TV viewers were offered hundreds of hours of single-minded examination and debate on one burning question: Did Karr do it?”
Cohen also reminded us how, three weeks before the Iraq invasion, Phil Donahue was fired by MSNBC because he was “a difficult public face,” presenting guests on his show who were “anti-war, anti-Bush, and skeptical of the administration’s motives.”
But the most damning shortfall of the U.S. media is its cowardliness. Soviet censorship was overt. U.S. self-censorship is covert.
Time and again, broadcast and print refuse to air or run stories that counter the government viewpoint. Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press (Prometheus Books, 2002) deals with stories that were neither printed nor aired. Essays indict CBS, Fox, and CNN for their coverups, censorship — and pusillanimity. The essence of the damning Buzzsaw indictment: The press is free to cover ephemera like White House sex scandals, the death of Princess Diana, and the O.J. Simpson murder trial. But it is another matter when stories are about CIA drug trafficking, October “surprises,” U.S. destruction of Iraq’s water supply, and U.S. sponsorship of human-rights abuses.
In 2005, the leaked Downing Street Memo made it clear that Bush cooked the intelligence books for the Iraq war, but it got little attention on the American networks. But while that major story was largely ignored, ABC news ran 121 stories on Michael Jackson and CBS news 235 during the two months the memo was newsworthy — an astounding value judgment.
Following the 2000 election, CBS refused to air a story about how 50,000 felons, most of them Democrats, were illegally removed from the Florida voting rolls. CBS bosses said the story did not hold up. Why? Staffers of Florida Republican Governor Jeb Bush told them so.
The media are often mouthpieces for the Bush administration. Media critic Edward Herman pointed out, “Despite many thousands of lines on the Iraq controversy, The New York Times never provided a single article analyzing the shifting Bush claims and enumerating the serial lies whose exposure was commonplace in foreign media and internet sources.” Eric Boehlert, reviewing a book for the American Journalism Review, noted how the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, in an anti-John Kerry campaign “riddled with untruths” and “clear contradictions,” got “prolonged, respectful attention” from the Establishment media.
Then there is the problem of phony balance. At Fox News Service, a rank cheerleader for the Bush administration will be interviewed along with a moderate Democrat. The liberal view is ignored — to say nothing of the Leftist view. “Because the mainstream media make a fetish of a particularly brainless form of objectivity,” wrote Eric Alterman in the June issue of The Nation, “the Bush administration has been able to deceive the American public on a dizzying array of issues, from war to economics to science.”
Thomas Nast, the great 19th-century editorial cartoonist, uttered a dictum that remains true to this day: “Policy strangles individuals.” It is difficult for an independent-minded journalist to get through the iron curtain of newspaper and broadcast editorial policy.
The New York Times banished Ray Bonner to the business section in the 1980s after he told the terrible truth about the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador. Bill Kovach resigned as editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the owners objected to his reporting of racist bank-lending policies and the bribery schemes of Coca-Cola, an Atlanta corporation. Columnist Sydney Schanberg quit The New York Times after editors kept killing his columns that disagreed with Times editorial policy. The Times killed an exposé of huge cost overruns at a nuclear plant and pulled the reporter from the environmental beat. Pete Hamill was fired by both the New York Post and the New York Daily News because his too-vigorous reporting violated their sensationalist and money-making policies.
Media critic Ben Bagdikian has written, “The underlying reason most good reporters leave journalism is their belief that the institution will not let them deal with the central problems of their communities in an intellectually honest and thorough way.” Seymour Hersh, perhaps the best investigative reporter in America, quit The New York Times because “it wouldn’t let him do the kinds of stories he wanted to do.”
Those who do stay in the media are often reporters and editors who lean the way the publisher leans — too respectful of those in power — and policy does indeed strangle individuals. The losers are the American people and democracy.
Judith Miller of the Times? She is no hero, even though she spent 85 days in jail rather than reveal a source. Her page-one reporting lent great credence to Bush’s war in Iraq. Her reporting sources were Iraqi defectors on the Pentagon’s payroll and top administration officials — all biased and all wrong.
As Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote in the aftermath of the Miller debacle, “Investigative reporting is not stenography,” but access to major government sources has become more important than truth. Miller gave her allegiance to her sources rather than to the American people, ignoring the dictum of I.F. Stone: “Every government is run by liars and nothing they say should be believed. That’s a prima-facie assumption unless proven to the contrary.”
The Times also delayed its explosive story about National Security Agency spying for one year at the behest of White House officials who worried that it might do extensive damage to the Bush re-election campaign. In doing so, the Times was working for the White House, not the American people. Indeed, the paper ran the story only after its reporter James Risen was ready to publish a book about NSA scanning citizen email and phone calls without getting a warrant as required by law.
Another story the Times refused to print might have led to Bush’s defeat in 2004: Bulgegate. During one 2004 presidential debate, Bush was wearing an electronic cueing device. Former Washington Post assistant managing editor Bagdikian remarked angrily to Extra!, a publication of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting: “I cannot imagine a paper ... turning down a story like this before an election. There was credible photographic evidence ... of a total lack of integrity on the part of the president, evidence that he’d cheated in the debate.”
But the Washington Post also played footsie with the government, refusing in a 2005 story to say where secret CIA interrogation prisons in Eastern Europe were “at the request of senior U.S. officials.”
Michael Massing, in an article in The New York Review of Books earlier this year, noted, “Today’s political pressures too often breed in journalists a tendency toward self-censorship, toward shying away from the pursuit of truths that might prove unpopular, whether with official authorities or the public.”
Why this self-censorship, this refusal to run explosive stories and this burial of important stories among the lingerie ads? We can’t just blame the media giants: Establishment values and thinking are deeply ingrained early on. Schooling, religion, society, and existing media mold journalists into the mainstream viewpoint, too.
“Reporters and editors are products of the same socialization as the media owners and political leaders,” press critic Michael Parenti has noted, “Therefore ... the orthodox view appears as an objective representation of reality itself.”
Journalists are Americans. It is their country. They, too, are patriots. No wonder the media are so often so weak when stories really matter.
Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.