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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Can the Constitution's First Amendment and Freedom of the Press Survive the MSM?

Former Baltimore Sun editorial page editor Jim Keat once called me an "FOIA fanatic." It is an appellation I have long since worn proudly because the Freedom of Information Act helps implement the First Amendment and its guarantee of Freedom of the Press, which is essential to the continuance of republican liberty.

This is why I so love Patrick Henry's declaration that: "The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them." The free press keeps our rulers' transactions out in the open where we can see what they are doing in our names. And then hold them accountable.

But increasingly I worry that the First Amendment and Freedom of the Press may not survive the MSM.

As it happens, I also love journalists and journalism. The classic eccentrics of the profession are mostly just memories now, but one still catches glimpses of their cultivated cynicism, unrestrained sentimentality and pride of craft whenever a bunch of reporters and editors gather after-hours to talk about the day's events.

But such well-watered gatherings are increasingly rare as the world of journalism has become an elitist profession rather than a craft of and for the common folks of everyday American life. I've been blessed to have worked in newsrooms with solid folks from both eras but much prefer the ethos of the former time.

So reading a column like that of Glenn Reynolds' latest on Slate.com strikes a chord in this corner. Critics have pointed to the arrogance, parochialism and insularity of the MSM for decades and at times it seems many in the institution are beginning to get it and to change for the better.

But then another Newsweek scandal comes along and out pours forth defensive reactions from the newsrooms providing fresh evidence that too many journalists still just don't get it. They simply don't understand that they so frequently speak and act like a privileged caste instead of as individuals trusted to report the news for the rest of us factually and honestly. The tragedy for them and us is that it is not merely the MSMers' professional credibility on the line in these matters.

The reason is, as Reynolds notes, that the First Amendment is "likely to be at risk if people see it as merely a special-interest protection for a news-media industry that is producing defective products that do harm." Products like CBS's Rathergate, the Newsweek Periscope item, CNN's Tailwind story, do just such harm.

The damage is reflected, among other places, in the consistently high percentages of people who favor government restrictions of one sort or another on journalists and public information, the most recent example of which is found in the latest survey of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Editor & Publisher summarizes one of the Annenberg survey findings thusly: "The non-journalists charge news organizations with often getting their facts wrong and more than half say the government should limit press freedoms at times."

Reynolds quotes a Boston Globe article on the Apple suit against a couple of bloggers in California and notes the paucity of MSM aid for the defendants. It would be a tragedy indeed if the only way the MSM learned the First Amendment was not written for them alone is for them to lose its protection because of their abuses.