Significant numbers of Americans believe that freedom of the press is a problem for our society rather than a solution. In fact, nearly half of the respondents in the most recent State of the First Amendment survey believe the press has too much freedom. To add insult to injury, more Americans believe that the freedom of the press to publish whatever it wants is a greater problem than government censorship by a margin of 41 percent to 36 percent. Other headlines regarding American attitudes toward the press in the annual survey conducted by The Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center: • Seven in 10 Americans believe it is very or somewhat important for the government to hold the media in check. • Four in 10 think that newspapers should not be allowed to endorse political candidates. • Three in 10 don’t believe newspapers should be allowed to criticize public officials. • And two in 10 don’t believe newspapers should be allowed to publish stories without government approval. The public does seem to understand the watchdog role of the press – 81 percent in the survey said that it is very important or somewhat important for the media to hold the government in check. On the other hand, 71 percent of the respondents also thought it was very or somewhat important for the government to hold the media in check. The 2001 survey was conducted during the spring, when the networks’ bungled coverage on election night last fall was still on the minds of many. Asked whether television networks should be allowed to project winners in national races, 80 percent said no. More ominously, 53 percent said they would favor a law restricting news organizations from projecting winners in a presidential election. What are journalists to make of these findings? Criticism of the American press is nothing new. In fact, some of the complaints Americans direct at the press today were staples of the Hutchins Commission report in 1947. Other surveys have hinted at similarly disquieting notions about the press. Nevertheless, the brute reality of public attitudes revealed in this survey generates real unease among those working to protect press freedom. Of particular concern is how public hostility toward the press translates into public policy that further restricts the ability of the press to perform its constitutional role. Private citizens are not the only ones who consider the press a problem. Policymakers challenge and seek to redefine the press’s role in our society. Scholars write insistently of the need for media reform that would unhinge the press from its traditional First Amendment moorings. State and federal legislators propose laws and regulations to rein in what they view as journalistic excess. In courts of law, the First Amendment claims of the press now must compete with other values ascendant in the public mind. Early this summer, the Supreme Court, in its first true press case in more than a decade, handed down a narrow victory for the press that was not all that comforting. In Bartnicki vs. Vopper, the justices sent a not-too-subtle warning that personal privacy concerns could trump press rights under slightly different circumstances. Press freedom, in fact, faces any number of innovative legal challenges. The Tennessee Supreme Court this year declined to review a lower court decision that shifted the burden of proof in a libel case to the newspaper defendant, rather than the state legislator who brought the suit. A libel suit was filed by a judge and a prosecutor against a Dallas weekly after the newspaper published a fictional satire critical of public actions by the public officials. In Nevada, the supreme court ruled in a recent case that the fair-reporting privilege does not extend to official reports that are “generally unavailable to the public.” Public hostility toward the press no doubt emboldens government officials who consider the press a problem. Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura issued press badges identifying reporters as “official jackals.” Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White barred Plain Dealer reporters from a press conference at a public school. U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell recently conducted a statewide poll with questions targeting The Courier-Journal of Louisville. When free-press sensibilities are sufficiently blunted, official action can take a much more serious turn. For example, the Justice Department demanded the originals and copies of interviews and other material from Houston writer Vanessa Leggett. When she refused, she was sent to jail for a record sentence. A few weeks later, the department secretly obtained the private telephone records of Associated Press reporter John Solomon. This latest survey of public attitudes toward the press, coupled with official antipathy and actions, confronts journalists and others with the challenge of changing public attitudes or allowing further erosion of the press’s First Amendment franchise. The changing media environment complicates such an assignment. Increasing numbers of Americans are going online for their news. Corporate mergers and bottom-line imperatives have had an impact on the newsroom culture in which news is defined, gathered and reported. More and more, readers, viewers and listeners are insisting that the right to privacy trumps the right to know. The good news for the press is that, despite the survey’s negative findings, there is a reservoir of good will toward the press and an understanding by most Americans that the role the press plays is vital to a democracy and their freedom. Whether journalists and advocates for press freedom can tap into that good will and expand that understanding depends on their successfully addressing the quandaries presented by the survey findings. Why do Americans fail to perceive freedom of the press as something that belongs to and benefits them rather than just the press? Would Americans be more protective of their own and journalists’ First Amendment rights if journalists were less inclined to consider coverage of First Amendment issues and events “inside baseball” and therefore of little interest or import to the general public? Does news content larded with process and personality at the expense of facts and events detach the press from the more critical demands of civic discourse and thus diminish its claim to First Amendment protection? Finally and most importantly, if indeed the press is too powerful, as many of its critics claim, why is it powerless to make a compelling case for press freedom? Successfully addressing such questions is not just a problem for journalists. It is a problem for everyone who believes in a free and open society.
Paul McMasters is the First Amendment Ombudsman at The Freedom Forum. He is a former national president of SPJ and currently serves as president of the Society’s Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.