October 5, 2000: We Need a Fair, Accurate and Free Press in America

An Atlanta television cameraman is due in court in Haralson County in December to answer charges he provoked a group of black teenagers into burning a Confederate flag.

I hope there is nothing to the charge because journalists are already fast losing the American public’s confidence. We don’t need another body blow.

The First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University has done a couple of extensive studies on public attitudes toward the media, and the results are unsettling.  More than half the Americans surveyed last year — 53% — said the press has too much freedom.  (“Press” in this context includes broadcast media.)   That is up 15 percent in just two years — a frightening trend.

But there’s more.  The survey indicates that most Americans believe newspapers should not be allowed to publish freely without government approval, that they should not be allowed to endorse or criticize political candidates, that journalists should not be able to use hidden cameras for newsgathering and that the news media should not be able to publish government secrets.  That is downright scary.

A free press in a free country should never be popular.  That is not our job.  In a nation of checks and balances, the press is our most important check to ensure that institutions are operating in the people’s interest.  Last year, more than half the law enforcement agencies and school superintendents in Georgia who received requests from the media for public records refused to comply, according to the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.  I guess they think the public’s business is none of the public’s business.  That is why we must have a free press.

But the current negative attitude toward the media transcends the role of the press.  It is HOW we do our job that seems to be the issue with the public.

In my opinion, the media are under siege for several reasons.  First, there is so much competition for viewers and readers since the Internet has become a major news source that reporters are under greater pressure than ever to get the story first. This immediacy can sacrifice accuracy.  I watched the media engage in a shameful feeding frenzy in 1996, trying to beat each other to the story of who planted the bomb in Centennial Olympic Park.  They still got it wrong and almost ruined an innocent man in the process.

Second, the line between news and entertainment is blurring.  We have had several instances in the past few years of television networks engaging in deceptive practices in pursuit of ratings.  NBC surreptitiously blew up a GM truck trying to prove it was unsafe.  ABC got caught rigging a piece on Food Lion stores.  CNN ran a major story charging that US troops fired nerve gas at defectors in Viet Nam.  It turned out to be untrue.  The bottom line is a major loss of trust with the American public.  That is why no one will dismiss out of hand the charges against the Atlanta television cameraman.  Unfortunately, there is a precedent.

Third, I think too many media people operate on the premise that you are guilty until proven innocent.  Having been on the other side of the fence, I found the press can be as arrogant as the institutions they are covering.  I have endured lectures from young pup reporters on “their” first amendment rights until I reminded them the first amendment belongs to everybody, not just the press.  Now the First Amendment Center survey notes the perception among Americans that free speech is more important than freedom of the press because, “freedom of the press belongs to the press while freedom of speech belongs to every individual.”

Summarizing their survey findings, the First Amendment Center says there is “a real resentment of the press and its practices among Americans, who characterize the news media as arrogant, inaccurate, superficial, sensational, biased and bent.  Worse, they apparently believe that the press is part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.”

This is not good news for anybody.  I am a newcomer to the media world but I am also a citizen who depends on a fair, accurate and free press to keep me informed.  The First Amendment Center study tells me a majority of Americans think we are doing a poor job.  Who is to blame?

To quote that noted Okefenokee Swamp philosopher, Pogo the Possum, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”