Defender of liberty

The glorious First Amendment has been left vulnerable by the people charged with protecting it

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. The amendment contains perhaps the finest 45 words ever strung together. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote that the First Amendment “reads more like a dream than a law.” He noted that few other countries have “been crazy enough to include such a dream among its legal documents.”

Far more nations should be “crazy enough.” It is a shame that most countries do not have a First Amendment or its equivalent.

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). Wine is almost sacred to the French. That is why the judge in the case said the critic “seriously abused the freedom of speech.” He ruled, “By debasing Beaujolais to the point of scatology and likening it to excrement,” the writer for the wine magazine had “seriously abused the freedom of speech.” The U.S. First Amendment protects such “abuse.”

Other French cases clog the courts. A French comedian was fined $5,300 for “inciting racial hatred” when he gave an allegedly anti-Semitic interview. Brigitte Bardot was convicted of inciting racial hatred for portraying Muslims as “cruel and barbaric” in her book, A Cry in the Silence. She was fined $6,050.

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 unhistorical?

Examples abound throughout the world where people are prosecuted for using the human right of speaking freely.

An Istanbul court sentenced a newspaperman to six months in jail for criticizing a penal code provision barring writers and scholars from “insulting Turkish identity.” Another Istanbul court tried five newspaper columnists for “insulting” the country’s courts. Specifically, the “Istanbul Five” attacked court rulings that tried to block an academic conference on Armenian genocide, a verboten topic in Turkey. (The Ottoman Empire slaughtered thousands of Armenians in 1915, some estimates ranging up to one million.)

And so it goes in far too many nations that do not tolerate freedom of expression.

In America, critics are entitled to be abusive or mistaken without being fined or jailed. What all too few Americans understand about the First Amendment is that it protects opprobrium, hatred, insult—and stupidity.

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 his truth about Islam: “The moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.”

Reporter Gary Webb wrote some notable coverage of U.S. intelligence, only to find his own newspaper running for cover when controversy struck.

Photo By Larry Dalton

The United Kingdom could use a First Amendment. British libel laws are harsh, making it difficult for the media to criticize celebrities, powerful people and powerful institutions.

The press is far freer in America than it is in Britain, which has an Official Secrets Act. That act 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 are a huge problem in America.

One problem was outlined by Jim Hightower, author of the 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 is that only news that meets the Establishment standard reaches the bulk of American people. Leftist publications like The Nation and The Progressive constantly criticize U.S. domestic and international policies but have skimpy circulations and nil impact.

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.”

Dissenting voices are often blocked by the mainstream media.

In 2004, the Walt Disney Co. stopped the Miramax division from distributing a documentary film by Michael Moore critical of President Bush. At least two movie theater chains refused to show the film. (The Moore movie Fahrenheit 9/11 won the top award at Cannes that year.)

In another case of censorship, Clear Channel was happy to carry shock jock Howard Stern when he was talking coarsely about sex. But when Stern began to talk bluntly about politics, urging listeners not to vote for Bush in 2004, Clear Channel 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.

Jeff Cohen, writing a recent column for the online Truthout, cited the case of sicko 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. TV profits and ratings meant abandoning any notion of journalism.

“For 10 days TV news fixated on this imposter-culprit as if he were a world figure,” Cohen wrote. “TV tracked Karr’s travels across the globe, telling what he ate for dinner, analyzing his attire.” In doing so, “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 thing about 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 are counter to the government viewpoint. Into the Buzzsaw confirms the subtitle: “Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press.” The book deals with stories that were neither printed nor aired. Essays indict CBS, Fox and CNN for their coverups, censorship—and pusillanimity.

Noam Chomsky is one of the world’s leading intellectuals, so influential a critic of U.S. policy that conservatives have published a book attacking him, <i>The Anti-Chomsky Reader</i>. But he can’t get arrested in the mainstream media. Programs like Nightline and the PBS NewsHour rarely use him.

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” just before presidential elections, U.S. destruction of Iraq’s water supply and U.S. funding of human rights abuses.

Gary Webb left the San Jose Mercury News after he exposed the link among the CIA, the Contras in Nicaragua and drug-dealers in Los Angeles. Worse: the Mercury News retracted the story. Still worse: Webb was trashed by Establishment newspapers.

In 1998, the Cincinnati Enquirer ran a damning investigative story about Chiquita banana under the headline: “Power, Money and Control, Chiquita Secrets Revealed.” Those secrets dealt with unethical and illegal business practices overseas. But since reporter Mike Gallagher “got the goods” from voice-mails a Chiquita whistleblower leaked to him, he was fired “for stealing personal corporate private property.” Then the gutless newspaper folded. It not only printed a retraction but also gave Chiquita $10 million compensation. No one denied the truth of the story.

CBS would not air a segment saying that the TWA explosion in 1996 was caused by an errant U.S. Navy missile. The CIA lied about it; the FBI denied the story. But they were all official sources. Eyewitnesses were not official sources. CBS also refused to air a story of how 50,000 felons, most of them Democrats, were illegally removed from the Florida voting rolls in 2000. CBS bosses said the story did not hold up. Why? Staffers of Florida Republican Gov. 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.”

In August this year, the Associated Press reported that 2,500 Marines would be called up to help fight a “war on terror” in Iraq. As press critic Norman Solomon noted in a Truthout online essay, this is President Bush’s rhetoric, not fact.

“Only as journalists stop cowering and start reporting on the basic flaws of the ‘war on terror’ concept will the body politic benefit from the free circulation of ideas and information—the lifeblood of democracy,” Norman wrote. “And only then will there be appreciable media space to really explore why so many people have become violently angry with America.”

Dan Rather, former anchor for CBS, was a contemptible journalist. John MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s magazine, called him what he was—a show-biz hack making $10 million a year, “a cheerleader for power, a cheerleader for the [Bush] administration,” a celebrity rather than a journalist. “George Bush is the president,” Rather said. “He makes the decisions and, you know, as just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.”

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.

Another huge problem in newspapering is third-rate editors. They are too deferential to power. Washington Post national security reporter Walter Pincus often had page one stories buried on page 17. Reporter Chris Hedges tells how he often had to fight two wars at the New York Times: one against Washington officials and the other with his own editors when trying to get stories in the paper.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reaped an astonishing 17 Pulitzers in 18 years. But Michael Shapiro noted in a Columbia Journalism Review article in March that former owner Knight-Ridder ruined a great paper by “endless meddling, cutting and demands for ever greater profits from its corporate masters.” The paper was no longer committed to good journalism. Instead, it was committed to greedy stockholders.

Then there is the problem of phony balance. At Fox News Service, a rank cheerleader for the Bush administration, a conservative will be interviewed along with a moderate Democrat. The liberal view is ignored—to say nothing of the Leftist view. The usual he said-she said journalism seldom leads to the truth. This bogus balance reminds you of the Churchill remark about giving “Jesus and Judas equal time.”

Eric Alterman wrote in The Nation in June: “Because the mainstream media make a fetish of a particularly brainless form of objectivity, the Bush administration has been able to deceive the American public on a dizzying array of issues, from war to economics to science. … Lying has usually damaged the presidents who do it. … But the media proved so timid in the face of this administration’s deceptions that the reckoning was delayed long enough for Bush to squeak into a second term.”

The Downing Street Memo in 2005, which made it clear that Bush cooked the intelligence books for an Iraq war he devoutly wished, 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.

Two distinguished political scientists, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, could not get their article critical of Israel published in America even though one staffer at Atlantic magazine called it magisterial. In a sad commentary on the U.S. Establishment press, the controversial piece was published first by the London Review of Books.

Novelist Salman Rushdie paid a price few U.S reporters must pay for the things they write—he was sentenced to death. Yet many of them make far less use of their press rights than he does, and he is critical of their timidity.

Thomas Nast, the great editorial cartoonist in 19th century America, 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 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. Sydney Gruson, New York Times correspondent in Guatemala, was canned in 1954 by the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency because he was “politically unsound.”

The Gruson incident proves the wisdom of the maxim of the great publisher Joseph Pulitzer: A newspaper should have no friends. Reporters should be able to report about politicians with the contempt they deserve.

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.”

Hersh does not believe anything governments say. Would that more reporters felt the same way. As media critic Noam Chomsky reported, the U.S. media refuse to ask tough questions that lead to embarrassing answers. He rightly complained that reporters are pussycats when facing powerful figures. For example: Elisabeth Bumiller, White House correspondent of the New York Times, who admitted that asking tough questions of the president is just too scary.

Those who do stay in the media are reporters and editors who lean the way the publisher leans—too respectful of those in power. That way means that policy does indeed strangle individuals. The losers are the American people and democracy.

Judy Miller of the Times? She is no hero even though she spent 85 days in jail rather than reveal a source. Miller is a disgrace to the craft. Her page one reporting lent great credence to Bush’s war in Iraq. Her reporting sources were Iraqi defectors and top administration officials—all biased and all wrong.

The Times went into paroxysms about the fiction of “reporter” Jayson Blair. It said little about stories that really mattered—the WMD and the mushroom clouds breathlessly reported by Miller. As Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, “Investigative reporting is not stenography.”

Access to major government sources becomes more important than truth. Miller gave her allegiance to those sources rather than to the American people. She ignored 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 delayed its explosive story about the National Security Agency spying for one year at the behest of White House officials worried that it might do extensive damage to the Bush re-election campaign. 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 could have defeated Bush 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!, 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.”

And the Washington Post played footsie with the government, refusing in a 2005 story to say where secret CIA interrogation prisons in Eastern Europe were. The Post refused to divulge the location “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? Establishment values and thinking are deeply ingrained. Schooling, religion, society, newspapers and television mold reporters and editors into the mainstream viewpoint.

Press critic Michael Parenti noted, “Reporters and editors are products of the same socialization as the media owners and political leaders. 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.