Our First Priority
By J. Max Robins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/1/2006 7:00:00 PM
Let's make 2006 the year of the First Amendment. It seems only fitting that the suggestion come from us.
Broadcasting & Cable in 2006 will celebrate its 75th anniversary, and throughout B&C's proud history, the support of the industry's right to freedom of speech and expression has been held sacrosanct. As we enter a new year, there is no better way to celebrate our legacy than to reaffirm our commitment to the precepts of that vital part of the Constitution.
It is abundantly clear that the First Amendment is an essential cornerstone to the community B&C serves—and that it is under attack.
Look at the battle brewing in Washington between the cable industry, the Federal Communications Commission and Congress over indecency and the drive to force cable-systems operators to make their offerings à la carte.
To many people, à la carte seems like another backdoor version of censorship, and a shameless attempt by the government to usurp the free-market forces that ought to determine how business should be run.
Quite frankly, à la carte may indeed be the way the cable business should go, but it shouldn't be driven there by a bunch of politicians kowtowing to a passel of noisy special interests. The upshot would ultimately mean less choice, not more.
Cable operators—notably Time Warner with a lousy plan and Comcast with one that is a little better—have responded by offering a so-called family-tier option. But who defines family programming? I don't want anyone making that decision for me. Do you?
The industry should march into 2006 looking for ways to expand the public's First Amendment rights, not looking for ways to limit them. In our industry, embracing the First Amendment, in no small part, means giving people what they want, when and where they want it.
From mobile phones to video iPods, last year was all about TV on-demand and on the go. It was also the year of the citizen journalist, where, as we wrote last August, the spread of cheap portable gadgets and the speed of the Internet made virtually everybody a potential reporter.
All of this will only become more prevalent in 2006—still more reason why this coming year should be the year of the First Amendment. The more places information can be distributed and the more people participating in gathering it, the better off we will all be.
In that spirit, this should be the year in which the industry intensifies its fight for a federal shield law.
News organizations should not be hounded by a judiciary run amuck that can send reporters off to jail if they refuse to break the confidentiality of a source.
While we're at it, let's make 2006 the year cameras can go into every courtroom. New Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has suggested that it is worth consideration by the highest court in the land.
News organizations must show they are worthy of such protections and access, too. It's time to take the pledge.
Instead of ceaselessly expressing First Amendment rights while chasing the tawdry and serving as virtual public-relations machines for entrenched powers in Washington, Hollywood and their home towns, journalists must recommit to reporting about the important events and ideas of our time.
This is the only way they will earn the public trust.
Looking back, we are able to see how admirably that happened when news organizations, both local and national, covered the mayhem caused by the hurricanes last year. It became a story not only about a horrible natural disaster but also about governmental ineptitude and indifference, and even about racial injustice.
That kind of reporting should be our inspiration going forward into the year of the First Amendment. A free and vigorous press is the lifeblood of B&C and the industry we cover.
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