COMMITTED TO THE FIRST AMENDMENT
Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/18/2001 7:00:00 PM
Network news executives swearing to government inquisitors that they would tell the truth, then apologizing for having made a decision that angered regulators and promising never to do it again. Sounds like something out of those old black-and-white newsreels of congressional witch-hunts. But that was the scene last week as the House Energy and Commerce Committee made top news executives stand before them and promise not to lie. We half expected to hear someone ask the journalists: "Are you now, or have you ever been, a commentator?"
Clearly, the networks screwed up on a couple of key election calls. Clearly, there were flaws in the system that were exposed and need correcting, just as the close election exposed flaws in the voting system and laws that also need correcting. But news executives' apologizing to their corporate bosses or their real bosses-the viewers-or vowing to them to correct those mistakes is one thing. Making that pledge to government under pressure from government is something else entirely. And it stinks. We're all unhappy with the events in Florida, but that anger is not a carte blanche for attacks on the handiest targets.
If there ever were an argument for freeing the nation's most powerful news media from government's power to intimidate, it was the sight last week of those news executives "yes, sir-ing" and "yes, ma'm-ing" their way to the woodshed like a bunch of disobedient children. That is something we've never seen and hope never to see again.
Those executives were first forced to cool their heels during hours of statements that produced more hot air than Vince McMahon's blow dryer, then were grilled by committee members unloading on the election, the blown calls and, at one point, even the airing of plugs for entertainment series in newscasts-just curiosity, explained the congressman.
None of the news executives should have shown up last week. But this is a regulated medium, so there could have been a price down the road for saying "the heck with you" to Washington's power brokers. We pay no such price, so, this being a family magazine, we say: "The heck with you." We don't mean to suggest that everyone went cheerfully into the lion's den (or should that be alligator's?). They didn't (just look at the faces on page 43).
Fox's Roger Ailes bristled at having to swear in, and David Westin's patience was sorely tested by one badgering congressman. Not adding obsequiousness to obedience is not exactly cause for celebration, though, again, we must always leaven our criticisms with the knowledge that Congress has regulatory power over broadcasters that it does not have over newspapers. It's like blaming the fish for having a hook in its mouth. We don't think broadcasters like their hook any more than the fish.
So, not only does compromised First Amendment protection prevent broadcast journalists from making decisions unalloyed by government pressures, but it prevents us from venting our full wrath at them when they jump at Washington's call. That's why, rather than beat up any more on the already beaten up, we'd rather praise those who fight hardest against being reeled in. The AP's Louis Boccardi was the strongest dissenting voice last week.
"We believe that such an official government inquiry into essentially editorial matters is inconsistent with the First Amendment values that are fundamental to our society," Boccardi told the committee in his opening statement. "We agree that there were serious shortcomings-call them terrible mistakes-in the election reporting of Nov. 7 and 8 and that these mistakes cannot be allowed to happen again. But fixing them is a job for the nation's editors and news directors, not its legislators. What we report and when we report it are matters between us and the audience we try to serve, not matters between us and our Congressman." How well or poorly they report it is none of Congress' business either.
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