Former White House press secretary Tony Snow said there is a threat to the First Amendment, and it comes from within.
"There is an ideological sameness to major news organizations, and that makes for bad journalism and bad business, and it's bad for the First Amendment," he said, "which was designed for ferocious competion of ideas and not orthodoxy."
Accepting the Freedom of Speech Award from The Media Institute Tuesday night in Washington, D.C., Snow was initially too overcome with emotion to speak after thanking his wife for her support through his bout with cancer. "Unlike Ed Muskie," he said, "I never would have made it in politics." But when he got his bearings, Snow lit forcefully into the media over what he saw as their bias, smugness and technology-driven shallowness and more.
He said he loved journalism, otherwise he wouldn't have been a journalist for 28 years. But he added that the threat he was talking about "doesn't come from the government, doesn't come from wackos, doesn't come from organized groups on the outside, but instead it comes from the media itself."
Snow said the press has gone from wild and untamed in its beginnings to a "period of consolidation and gentrification," with control in a handful of elite institutions like TheNew York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, as well as the major TV networks that "shaped and defined not merely what counted as news but what counted as acceptable opinion."
Now, he said, news has returned to the Wild West. "Ideas and controversies are erupting from every pore of the body politic," he added, a particularly graphic image. Technology may have democratized the media he said, but politcal rhetoric has turned nasty, childish and personal, and people are "sick of it."
He said the reason why newspapers are losing readers and TV viewers is not because there is less appetite for news, but because the media aren't delivering it.
Snow said there were several reasons, including smugness and being satisfied with conventional wisdom--"generally speaking conventional liberal wisdom"--pointing out that a study after the 1992 election found that 93% of Washington political reporters voted for Bill Clinton. He found a similar spread for party affiliation, "which makes The Washington Post was one of the most reliable Democratic voting blocks in the nation," he quipped.
He said that was not a smear but a fact. Snow said he didn't think there was a deliberate bias, but one of familiarity with the ideas of Democrats after they controlled Congress virtually from the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration until Newt Gingrich. "Conservatives had seemed outsiders rather than part of the mainstream," he said, citing a call he got from a reporter in 1994 wanting introductions to Republicans as though they were some newly discovered poltical species.
Snow argued that Fox News, his old employer, gets "hammered" just for giving conservatives "equal time and respect."
Snow said another threat to the First Amendment was political correctness, which he labeled a type of prior-restraint censorship and described as denying people the ability to think, write or talk about something "that ruffles the feathers of those who consider themselves the arbiters of the acceptable."
He added that those arbiters will justify their position by saying they don't want to hurt people's feelings or invoke stereotypes: "But let's be clear, the First Amendment did not create allowances for censors."
Snow said the system is self-correcting: "The American society has a wonderful record when it comes to rejecting demagogues and verbal exhibitionists. They may have their day, but it never lasts."
Snow said media have been seduced by process stories, conflict stories and polls, and "along the way have sacrificed the tradition of digging deeper, of being more more creative and connecting with the stuff we deal with on a daily basis because very few of us have regular contact with Britney [Spears] or her children."
The last threat, he said, was a "cramped" view of the First Amendment, which also includes freedom of religion and assembly. He said they were all linked, but Chrisianity has been redefined as a menace. He called that a disconnect with American values by the political establishment and said that the press does a "terrible" job of covering religion, adding that reporters take a less critical view of those who would constrain political speech.
And he added that campaign-finance reform has taken the attack on assembly into the electronic realm by limiting the ability of citizens to express political views during politcal campaigns.
But Snow wasn't all gloom and doom. He said the weaknesses he had outlined aren't inherent or irreversible. Reporters "hate censorship, love their work. They see it as a noble calling, and they are right."