Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Press-Citizen Practices Free Speech Spirit

The Press-Citizen is entitled to some credit for printing a particular column in the paper this morning (October 3). Mine.

In Nicholas Johnson, "Let's Not Gamble With Students' Lives," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 3, 2006, I really take the paper to task for an earlier story, Hieu Pham, "Students Find New Ways to Earn Cash," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 26, 2006, which I felt crossed the line between promoting gambling casinos in general and suggesting that gambling might actually be a source students should consider for paying their college expenses. I had earlier blogged about the story here, Nicholas Johnson, "Press-Citizen Promotes Student Gambling," September 26, 2006.

Yet I've headlined this blog entry, "Press-Citizen Practices Free Speech Spirit." Why?

1. Journalism reviews. One of the functions of a free press under our First Amendment is to provide a check, not only on government ("the fourth estate") but on such abuses as there may be from any and all large and powerful institutions. But what of the media? Certainly it's a large and powerful institution; some would say the most powerful institution. What can provide a check on the media? Enter the "journalism reviews." The granddaddy is probably the Columbia Journalism Review. But over the years there have been journalism reviews in Chicago, St. Louis, and other cities. These are publications, with contributions often coming from the journalists themselves, that keep an eye on the media: conflicts of interest, failures to stand up to government, ethical violations, or subserviance to advertisers (promoting their economic interests, killing stories they don't like, and otherwise letting them influence news content). We haven't had journalism reviews in eastern Iowa (of which I am aware). So that's one of the fuctions this blog provides from time to time (indeed, the blogosphere generally). See, for example, Nicholas Johnson, "Mr. Editor, tear down this wall!" August 8, 2006 ("this wall" a reference to the former newspapers' wall between advertising and news; the issue: The Gazette's big news story about Wendy's new vanilla Frosty),
and Nicholas Johnson, "Coming P-C Casino Spread: Another Frosty?" August 22, 2006. So the September 26 blog entry, and this morning's Press-Citizen column based on it, are simply in that spirit.

2. Spirit of First Amendment. There's much more talk about the First Amendment than there is understanding of it. For starters, it is only a limit on governments (albeit all governments from federal to city councils and school boards). Ironically, the First Amendment's rights belong only to the owners of mass media, not to those who work within it. If a newspaper owner (in the case of the Press-Citizen, Gannett, with corporate headquarters in McLean, Virginia, on the east coast) wishes to censor one of its reporter's stories, or fire an editor for an editorial, there is nothing in the First Amendment to prevent the corporation's CEO from doing so. Obviously, if the employees have no First Amendment rights, those submitting op ed columns and letters to the editor have even less. Not even advertisers can demand access to a newspaper when they're willing to pay for it and the newspaper wants to reject the ad. The Supreme Court has repeatedly made very clear that (aside from some minor exceptions in the case of broadcasting) with the media owner's right of free speech goes the right to censor all others. But it's not for lawyers' failure to present the Court with contrary analyses. In Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, 418 U.S. 241 (1974), law professor Jerome Barron argued that what was contemplated at the time the First Amendment was drafted (with town meetings and conversations on the village green) could only be accomplished -- in a land of large population urban centers and an economy of near-universal local newspaper monopolies -- by providing some right of entry into the pages of monopoly newspapers for all (certainly paid, but preferably with some free space as well, at least to answer newspaper attacks on an individual). The Court did not buy Professor Barron's argument.

3. Newspaper self-criticism. During the 1960s and 1970s, when I was on the FCC and thereafter, there were fewer of what we have today in the form of the multiple-media conglomerates that control everything from book publishers, to movie studios, newspapers and television stations, and so forth. Some of the best television criticism we ever had came during those years from the TV critics writing for newspapers that did not own stations. But it was rare for those papers to print criticism of themselves, or the newspaper industry generally. Although I don't recall the issue, I do recall once praising the Wall Street Journal for a piece it ran criticizing its own performance. Not only was this rare, but as I wrote at the time it was going above and beyond; so long as the newspapers would review the performance of television I didn't really expect them to take on newspaper criticism as well.

And that's why . . .

4. The Iowa City Press-Citizen was practicing the spirit of the First Amendment this morning. It certainly had no constitutional, or other legal, obligation to publish that column of mine, criticizing one of its news stories as potentially harming its young readers. As I said of the Wall Street Journal years ago, I would even say the Press-Citizen's ethical obligation to publish it was fairly low. It was only the spirit of the First Amendment at play. Given how many of us bristle at the hint of criticism in our daily lives, if we owned newspapers how many of us would be prepared to spread upon their opinion pages criticism from others regarding how we are doing our jobs?

Of course, it remains to be seen whether you will ever again see a column of mine on the opinion pages of the Press-Citizen, but as of this morning the paper is entitled to a big "Hat's Off!" for putting
"Let's Not Gamble With Students' Lives" on its opinion page.

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