Don’t sacrifice First Amendment to terrorism, ombudsman warns

Thursday, September 20, 2001

The anger and fear Americans feel in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon should not lead the nation to carve away at the very freedoms on which this country was founded, said Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for The Freedom Forum.

“There are calls by many people to start making things more secret than they are, censoring speech, censoring the press, interfering with freedom of association, all of which are very fundamental to who we are as a nation … . I would just say that we need to take a deep breath, step back and reconsider, because those kinds of freedoms are never regained once they’re given away,” he cautioned.

McMasters spoke about how the investigation into the terrorist attacks and heightened security measures could affect American’s civil liberties during an “Inside Media” program at the Newseum on Sept. 13.

In response to other possible restrictions on civil liberties, such as expanding electronic and other kinds of surveillance and shutting down Web sites, McMasters said, “We can understand the reason for this, obviously. We want to catch the perpetrators. We want to make sure this kind of thing never happens again. But we also have to think about how much do we want to give away in our liberties in order to quote protect our liberty. It is a contradiction.”

McMasters emphasized that many other security measures could and should be taken that would not infringe on American’s First Amendment freedoms. He cited the hiring of better-paid, better-trained security staff at airports and redesigning the airplane cockpit door to make it much more difficult to penetrate and open.

The veteran of 31 years in journalism also addressed the issue of racial profiling at airports. “Immediately when something like this happens we want to blame … someone … whose culture we don’t know very well … and then want to drive all of those people out of our midst or to start discriminating against them … . It’s something that the media should worry about if it conveys stereotypes or foments panic or focuses too much on race or ethnicity rather than just terror.”

Television coverage immediately following the plane crashes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon included footage of Palestinians dancing in the streets. While some Americans have criticized the use of the video, fearing a backlash against Arabs and Arab-Americans, McMasters stressed that the news media did not act irresponsibly by showing it.

“In the three times that I saw it, … the anchor or the narrator went to great lengths to try to put it into context … not only from what the perspective was of those people who were dancing and celebrating but the fact that it did not represent all Palestinians, let alone all of the Arab world,” he said.

McMasters also applauded the news media for showing restraint in speculating on who may be responsible for the attacks. In fact, he said criticism that journalists and news outlets showed too much restraint was valid.

“They are having great internal arguments about whether they show the people with their faces pressed [against] the window(s) in the World Trade Center towers. They don’t want to show the footage of the falling bodies … of bodies being pulled out … . It is their decision to make and maybe it is best.

“I do think there is a good argument to make for saying that Americans can handle this kind of information, that in times like these more information is better than less information,” he said

McMasters, who was associate editorial director of USA TODAY, emphasized the important role editorials play in directing public discourse about the terrorist attacks. “It is up to editorial boards particularly to reason … and to discuss all the ramifications of a particular action, and the editorials that I’ve been seeing thus far have taken the tack of really just addressing the issue of the terrorism and how it came to be and have been very careful about not recommending a particular course of action, because there are so many unknowns.”

The discussion was one of a series of programs in conjunction with the Newseum’s America Under Attack exhibit.

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