Freedom of the Press

“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. “

That’s the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and right there, number three on the list, is a prohibition that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of the press. Thus, the government cannot control the press (media) but there seems to be something missing, for no where in the Constitution does it provide for the protection of the people from the press.

Do you find it strange that if a person lies in a court of law they can be charged with the crime of perjury, but if a person knowingly lies in the court of public opinion there is little to no legal accountability? When a journalist tells you that they know something because of ” anonymous sources” you just have to take on faith that what they’re saying is true. Intelligence officers of the US government are not allowed to use “anonymous sources”. They are required to register those sources and conduct background checks and provide corroborating information on the intelligence those sources provide. Why then should journalists be permitted to cite anonymous sources when there is no way to compel them to reveal their sources, even in a court of law; yes they can be held for contempt but only in certain cases. So, any journalist is free to claim whatever they want without corroboration or, for that matter, any repercussions should they be wrong or, Heaven forbid, dishonest. I do not mean to impugn all journalists (who these days really aren’t journalists but social influencers) but we have seen too many cases where stories are in-part or wholly derived from the imagination of the “reporter” in furtherance of a personal or political agenda.

More often than manufactured from whole cloth (or more appropriately hole cloth) we find stories with facts which have been “massaged” to support an agenda the ‘reporter’ has for their reporting. I find it amusing, and distressing at the same time, to watch a press conference where questions shouted at the principal are often multiple sentences expressing a political viewpoint ending in an uprising inflection as if the accusation is a question. This is a method used to bring the reporter’s agenda into the situation such that the reporter can now write a story or deliver a broadcast tilted towards that agenda and not necessarily what the press conference was about. And then, of course, there are the trap questions; you know like, “When did you stop beating your wife?”

We must not neglect the personality wannabes in the “reporter” corps; you know the ones who try to assert their presence and will do anything to get on camera including asking stupid questions or just plain acting out like a three-year old who wants attention. But the thing that irks me the most is that news isn’t news anymore; it’s opinion guised as explanation. What does this mean? says the news opinionater (my word don’t look for it in the dictionary) and then they turn to a panel of “experts”. You know the definition of an expert, right: someone from more than fifty miles away who carries a briefcase. Well, anyway the panel members then each explain the present and predict the future at which they’re about as good as most financial advisors. If financial advisors know so much about the market why haven’t they cleaned up and retired?

But back to truth in reporting. Shouldn’t we have some process to hold the media responsible for bad and irresponsible reporting? Shouldn’t there be consequences for frightening people with half-truths and supposed threats? For delivering “news” manipulated to support a reporter, newspaper or TV outlet’s agenda.

Every cable news network is on the air twenty-four/seven predicting dire events and coming disasters. Ever notice how disappointed the Weather Channel reporters are when the storm doesn’t strengthen into a hurricane and pound the coast? How about the causes of an aircraft accident? I’ve done a few aircraft accident investigations and I can tell you they are painstakingly detailed and that requires, on average, three to five months but all the investigators have to do now is turn on CNN or Fox or MSNBC and the “experts” will tell them exactly why the aircraft crashed and they’ll do it within hours of the actual crash. Of course, over the progress of the investigation they may change their assessments so that by the time the actual results are announced they will be correct and no one will recall their initial assessments nor the actions they suggested to stop further similar events from occurring.

What about criminal arrests and trials? The media will cover high profile cases 24/7 more often than not trying the accused in public, and most times convicting them, months before the case gets to court. In truth, it is probably impossible to find an unbiased jury in a high profile case because no matter how much a prospective juror says they haven’t been influenced by the media, they have. Just the shear volume of opinion from this defense attorney or that former Assistant Attorney General, or some law school professor, will have put ideas into their heads about guilt or innocence. As cases in point there have been more than few criminal cases where juries have acquitted because they did not think there was enough “Forensic” evidence presented by the prosecution. This is a direct outgrowth of police procedural shows where scads of forensic evidence are presented in cases of high crimes. Thus, in these cases, the prosecution could not get a fair trial because of the unrealistic expectations of the juries. This isn’t the press but it demonstrates the influence media has on the judicial processes in the US.

As for a procedure to hold the media accountable some will say the punishment for bad reporting is people will stop watching, reading or subscribing, but that isn’t happening; would that it were. There has been so much side-taking in the media that if the reporter’s story agrees with a reader’s idea on an issue then they don’t care if it’s true or not; they’ll cheer the reporter on. The recent law suit settlements achieved by the lawyers representing the young man from Covington, KY are heartening in that they recognize the overstepping of the media in pushing an agenda that was patently false. Yet, they do nothing to reign in the individual journalists responsible for fabricating the stories. Settlements are paid by insurance companies; all media outlets have insurance policies for these kinds of cases but there is no “Trickle Down” accountability that can be enforced against individual journalists or editors responsible for these stories. Perhaps if individuals were named in the law suits we might see more restraint and fact checking but I’m not sure because so many media types seem hell bent to push an agenda in favor of something or against someone. I do not like law suits for I fear for the society if everyone who feels offended is allowed to file a law suit so we’ll need some responsible jurists to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Someone should care about protecting the public from the media and it appears that someone will have to be us. Freedom of the press should have a counterweight in Freedom from the press.

What do you think?

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