Remember Our First Priority

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A Knight Foundation report issued last week found that nearly three-quarters of American high school students are clueless about the First Amendment and that more than a third of them thought it would be a good idea if journalists received prior approval from the government before they report anything. Then there is the one-third who think news organizations need even more restrictions on what they produce.

Gee, that’s reassuring. No wonder Kansas City Star columnist Mike Hendricks mused that “the news media might have done better had the survey been taken on a street corner in Baghdad than in an American high school.”

Truly, what makes the findings of the Knight Foundation study particularly chilling is that it comes at a time when this industry’s First Amendment rights are in serious jeopardy. But the results seem somehow right in step with a climate of onerous FCC fines, legislation in Congress to limit the flow of information, and a White House bent on keeping every document under lock and key. And don’t forget, this has been a year when prosecutors feel freer than ever to demand reporters reveal sources or be thrown in jail.

Sadly, the assault on the First Amendment is too often abetted by those who, ultimately, are among those who have the most to lose. During the last year—from Janet Jackson’s overexposed Super Bowl breast onward—the broadcasting industry has done a ham-handed job of defending its rights. Typical is Phil Lombardo, chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters joint board, who lambasted the FCC for levying millions of dollars in indecency fines against TV and radio stations, while cable and satellite were left unscathed [see page 36]. Great. Let’s just fine everybody now so we level the playing field.

Far too often, Big Media giants say nothing to defend their First Amendment rights, too fearful to fight back and have the government take retribution out in some other area of their far-flung enterprises. The whole atmosphere of cowardice and inaction is only worsened by errant news organizations that abuse the rights they possess.

As has been reported here and elsewhere, in the wake of the CBS News fiasco over the botched story on President Bush’s National Guard service, the already shrinking appetite at news organizations to do tough investigative pieces has been diminished even more. What we have instead of substantive reporting on issues that matter are partisan shoutfests and a perpetual obsession with seamy crimes and celebrity.

Last February, when I took the helm of B&C, my predecessor, Harry Jessell, gave me some sage advice. Key to this magazine’s legacy and its connection to the community it serves is its staunch defense of the First Amendment, he said. I couldn’t agree with him more.

Over the last year, every time our editorial pages condemn the war being waged against the First Amendment, it seems that a senior executive from one media giant or another will privately praise us for going public with the concerns they often voice in private. But when we offer to open our pages so they can lend their powerful voices to that defense, the typical response is: “Are you crazy?”

Yes, we’re driven crazy that those in our industry don’t speak up often, loud and proud to defend the First Amendment.

Come on. You know now about the Knight study. There are a few million teenagers who need you to set a better example.

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