Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Journalists and the First Amendment

Freedom of the Press is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. It is supposed to safeguard against government interference in the dissemination of information and opinions needed for an informed electorate. Take away that freedom, and you eliminate the very principles on which our nation was founded. 

One of the first things an escalating authoritarian government does is limit the press, close the doors on the information it uncovers, and demean its research. When Adolf Hitler took power in 1933, the Nazis controlled less than three percent of Germany’s 4,700 newspapers. Little by little, they seized control of the press and radio stations, and destroyed opposition political party offices, which fundamentally stopped the distribution of information that wasn’t in their self-interest.

Governments have used the press to propagandize its positions. John Adams signed into law the 1798 Sedition Act, which made publishing anything critical of the government illegal. Jefferson stopped it when he became president. Teddy Roosevelt hated the press, called them muckrakers and liars. Sound familiar? Eisenhower restricted media access, and Kennedy’s love affair with the press went sour during the Cuban Missile crisis. He then shut off all foreign policy information. Reagan charmed the press. He also had a good public affairs department who did their job well. The press didn’t hit as hard as they could have on the Iran Contra affair, though the courts did.

Then there was Nixon, who called the press “elites.” Sound familiar? The Watergate scandal erupted because two journalists unearthed the facts behind the “third rate burglary” of the Democratic National Committee's office, with the help of “Deep Throat,” a source that urged them to “follow the money,” and whose identity they concealed until after the man’s death. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s stellar reporting exposed an effort by Nixon to cover up the crime, but the more the fearless reporters exposed the truth, the more obvious Nixon’s involvement became, which ultimately led to the fall of his presidency. Their book, All the President’s Men, was a bestseller, and the movie is still one of the best films of all time about journalism.

The book Game Change, an exposé of the 2008 election, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin is a more recent example of journalists doing their jobs, in spite of efforts to shut them down. Another great journalistic endeavor and bestseller of the 1960s, The Making of a President, by Theodore White, chronicled John F. Kennedy’s rise to power.

TV shows like 60 Minutes have done some amazing stories. One I recall about Jeffrey Wigand, a chemist for the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company, who exposed the addition of chemicals to the nicotine in cigarettes to make them more addictive. He received death threats for his whistleblowing and was the subject of a movie starring Russell Crowe.

For all the freedoms of the press, sources like Wikileaks dispense communications to advance a certain political agenda and can be both dangerous and/or informative. It’s still up to journalists to filter through the information, misinformation, distortions, propaganda, and fake news to makes sure that what surfaces bears some semblance of truth, free of bias.

Let’s hear it for the First Amendment and for the intrepid journalists who make sure we know what’s going on behind the scenes.

 If only we pay attention.



Polly Iyer is the author of eight novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, and three books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, and Backlash. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

32 comments :

  1. An informative and timely article.

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  2. I can personally attest to a 60 Minutes piece that was manipulated to reflect lies. I am all for freedom of the press and not for opinion pieces which is the way too many media pieces really are. Journalists do not insert their opinions into the articles they write. As writers, we all know that its all about how you say something that leaves the reader with the message you want them to have. Two of the biggest names in recent history that I can think of purposely misled their publics and were forced to admit it only when the truth was revealed by someone else: Dan Rather lied, Bryan Williams lied. We also need to be very careful about how much we believe from any of these sources. What is called "fake news" today was called propaganda years ago. The United States overtly interfered with the Israeli elections and acknowledged it. This kind of interference is nothing new on the world stage, yet the Russians doing it to us explodes all over the media. I always take what I see and hear with more than one grain of salt, whatever the source.

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    1. I certainly wouldn't gloss over Rather's lack of vetting his source or his poor judgment in releasing the story before he did. He paid dearly for something every newbie journalist should have done. However, for the few times a journalist got it wrong, over the years they've done an important job in exposing the truth behind the lies. Are journalists and newspapers infallible? No, but without them, we would fall prey to the dissemination of lies and distortions. Do we need to follow up on these reports and separate the slanted and biased information? Of course we do. But we mustn't close the door on a free press even if we don't always like what they're reporting.

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    2. As far as Brian Williams, his was a lie of ego and aggrandizement. He paid dearly for that to, and rightly so.

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  3. Your article is timely and important. We cannot exist as a country without freedom of the press. Despite the errors made over the years, the press in this country is still one of the most reliable and important sources of information to be found anywhere. Thank you for reminding us.

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    1. I agree, obviously, and answered above accordingly. There are too many people willing to accept one side or the other without proper diligence in ferreting out the truth. Somehow it always comes out, though, doesn't it?

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  4. Great post. I've always wanted to read All the President's Men. Perhaps now is a good time to do it. (BTW - I think one of the best things we can do is to get our information from varied sources, with varied tilts, and do independent research. It amazes me how many people shout "fake news!" when the facts of the matter are easily verified.)

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    1. The "fake news" label is dangerous and anyone who falls for it isn't doing his or her job as an informed citizen. At the end of the day (a term I hate but works here), we are in charge of what's true and what isn't. The people, We the People, must do our jobs as well as the journalists.

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  5. I applaud and share your passion and patriotism in taking on this important topic. Having said that, my views align with the comments of CJ above. Too many journalists and politicians have fallen from grace due to unsavory personal ethics and disclosures of unethical reporting or governing.

    As citizens, we must pay attention to the free press as an UNBIASED, HONEST agent for the people. Yes, there has been good reason for that necessity on all sides of the aisle over the life of our dear country.

    When we bring unchecked emotion and lack of reason to the debate in the form of civil disobedience and free speech and it turns into violent protests against the speech of those we disagree with and the distruction of property, even injury to and attacks on fellow countrymen, we have a problem.

    As writers we are readers and viewers and thinkers. I make a point of including many different media outlets in my information gathering so that I may make an informed decision on these important ideas.

    Regardless of how well I like or dislike the occupant of the White House during any given term, I still respect our constitution and system to guide our vision and action. In the end we must rely on CIVIL discourse as the model and practice.
    And believe it or not, there is much common ground worthy of calm, passionate discussion. Be Well!

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    1. I couldn't agree with you more. At no point in my post did I take one side or the other, including with Wikileaks. My point was that we mustn't silence a free press, and when they are wrong, they are just as deserving of criticism as their subjects. I agree that there is no place in our Democratic Republic for violent protest, but I also think that adhering to the Constitution should not be blatantly manipulated to suit whoever is in office. You either follow the Constitution and its laws or you don't. Thank you for your participation.

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  6. I agree with the huge value of a free press AND with those who deplore the violence that has erupted in this country over disagreement with a point of view. The dissemination of unbiased truth is essential to educate and inform people. However, demonstrations that injure or even kill others, destroy property, and keep people from sharing different perspectives endanger us all. Politicians and diplomats advocate sitting down at the negotiating table and discussing a resolution of differences. Can this approach not be effectively applied to in a balanced way to other scenarios?

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    1. I agree, Linda, but journalists report what's happening. Protesters react to situations that affect their lives, whether it's shootings or healthcare or racism. I also agree that protesting these things would be better accomplished through peaceful dissent, but sometimes those involved find those avenues closed and resort to violence through frustration. In their efforts to report the facts, journalists should not, and for the most part, do not, take sides.

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  7. Great article, Polly. I don't know what to say about all this communication we're a part of every day. What is the truth? Who can we trust? What is real? Even scientists are being bought off, and journalists are even more vulnerable. I feel like I'm living in an alternate universe half the time!

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    1. Who knew the truth could be bought, Dani? Who knew the Constitution could be manipulated and/or ignored to further an agenda? We need journalists to put the facts before us and hope the majority of people care enough to learn what's true and what isn't. As it is now, I'm in that alternate universe with you.

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  8. Hi Polly,

    You raise some questions. How is our Constitution being manipulated and when, recently has the press been suppressed? With cable news and social media the press is more vibrant than ever.

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    1. For one, the Emoluments Clause that says no president or his family should profit from the office. That's already a done deal and would have initiated an uprising if it were a Dem president. Seems Congress is looking the other way as far as this clause. Prohibiting some news organizations and TV networks from attending the press briefings. That seems to have subsided, but it happened. There's more, but this isn't the venue for making the case.

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  9. It is getting more difficult to sort fact from fiction. Journalistic integrity has been compromised by "legitimate" news sources often enough that they can't be fully trusted. I try to research the information I read, but that can be exhausting. When you have so many sources of information and misinformation, it takes a great deal of effort to remain informed. It has never been more critical to have sources of fact-checked and verified "news."

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    1. Recently, I've said I can't tell satire from truth. One of my favorite political satirists, Andy Borowitz, is sometimes so close to the truth that these days it's hard to tell the difference.

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  10. Excellent post, Polly. All news comes to us filtered. As media consumers, it’s our responsibility to carry out due diligence and fact check when we can. Two truths hold: willful ignorance benefits no one, and freedom is nothing without choice.

    To speak out against a press story that one believes to be unfair, deceptive, or false is the constitutional right of every American. To curtail or attack the free press as “fake news” isn’t freedom of speech. It’s a subversion of the First Amendment, both unconstitutional and un-American.

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    1. You're exactly right, VR. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. One allows a person the protection to say whatever he wants; the other allows the press to write the truth. Though "the truth" is not expressly defined within the amendment itself, it has always been promoted and accepted as the goal of a free press. To distort that in any way is, as you said, both unconstitutional and un-American.

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  11. Well done, Polly. You presented a balanced and informative exposé of your own!

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    1. Thanks, Peg. I appreciate your comment.

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  12. Thanks for this great conversation, Polly. Admittedly, I am no Constitutional scholar, and you are educating me as well. I did a quick search of the clause you referenced and found this link from the Washington Post in 2009. It is an eye-opening article, but surely the two incidents mentioned did not cause any uprising. As for the press briefings, I know one intent of the current WH Press office is to allow access by some of the more remote, small town news outlets that did not have the budget to have a staffer in DC. I am also certain there is more to the story, including the "gloves-off" position the WH is forwarding with the Press. We are living in interesting times, to say the least. Thanks again for starting this important conversation. I appreciate that we have been able to share our ideas--many that match. Here's that link>
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/15/AR2009101502277.html

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    1. Ah, so the "Obama did it too" rebuttal. As far as the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit, President George W. Bush also received it, and for neither president was it considered unconstitutional or an emolument. President Obama didn't gain financially from the Nobel peace prize money. He gave every cent to 10 charities, many for veterans. I will not continue this discussion further, and I thank you for you interest.

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  13. Thank you, Polly. I enjoyed our chat, Be Well.

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  14. Journalists who desire to be viewed as journalists have to stop giving their opinions. Just the facts, please. Check the facts. You have to have two or more reliable corroborating sources. I don't want to read a judgemental and condemning story based entirely on anonymous sources. If they can't get corroborating facts to back up the anonymous sources, don't print it or report it.

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    1. I agree. And neither should the source be, "many people said," or "everyone is saying," no matter who uses those attributions.

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  15. Great piece. When I taught media writing, I always talked to the students about the importance of shedding light on the truth and the work that is involved in doing this.

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    1. Thanks, Shonell. Now more than ever, with the cry of "fake news," it's important to make sure the truth is exposed and that no one can muzzle anyone from telling it.

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  16. With freedoms come great responsibilities. Journalists these days are forgetting that they're not the story, that facts need to rule over opinions, and that the American people are getting wise to this business of "anonymous sources say...."

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    1. Or...as I mentioned above, "Many people are saying..." and "Everyone said..." I feel the good journalists "anonymous sources" are totally vetted. At least I hope they are.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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