‘Perfect storm’ threatening press freedom, panelist says

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

High-profile scandals in the news media, legal challenges to reporters, an increasingly polarized society and blurred lines separating news, commentary and entertainment have created a “perfect storm” over the First Amendment’s protection of press freedom, Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler said during a panel discussion sponsored by the Newseum.

Getler was part of a panel that gathered recently at the National Press Club to discuss the results of the 2004 State of the First Amendment survey. The survey, released each year by the First Amendment Center, examines public attitudes toward freedom of speech, press, religion and the rights of assembly and petition.

Joining Getler on the panel were Ken Paulson, editor of USA TODAY and former executive director of the First Amendment Center; Armstrong Williams, syndicated columnist, commentator and talk-show host; Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; and Tony Mauro, Supreme Court reporter for Legal Times and legal correspondent for the First Amendment Center. Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center, was the moderator.

The panelists covered a wide range of topics related to how the news media is doing its job — from perceived bias in the press to the use of confidential sources to fabricating stories. Addressing a survey finding that 58% of Americans disagree with the statement that “Overall, the news media try to report the news without bias,” Williams noted that part of the problem is distinguishing between the different types of media available today.

“What is confusing is … there are a lot of media out there,” he said. “There are journalists, there are talk show hosts, there are commentators. People become very confused as to those that really report the news and those that give their opinion.”

Williams said that as a commentator he’s free to share his conservative views, but “reporters, they’re obligated not to allow their opinions to come in to the reporting of the story. … But for some people who listen to the Rush Limbaughs of the world, the Al Frankens of the world, the Armstrong Williamses of the world, the Sean Hannitys of the world, it becomes very confusing.”

Williams noted that in hosting his “On Point” show on TV One, he’s not supposed to allow his views into interviews — a task he finds challenging. “I find it very difficult for anyone in media to separate how they feel how a person should govern, a position that an administration should take, to separate it from what they truly believe,” he said.

Dalglish challenged that, noting that in the 15 years she spent as a reporter and editor before becoming a lawyer, it seemed that the journalists she worked with were “just about the most unopinionated, disengaged people I had run into.”

But USA TODAY’s Paulson said, “There is a bias in America’s newsrooms. But it’s not pro-liberal, anti-conservative; it’s anti-government. It’s about keeping an eye on people in power. So people who are cynical in America’s newsrooms about George Bush were cynical in America’s newsrooms about Clinton as well. And it’s not entirely a bad thing to look at those in power and say let’s keep them in check and ask the tough questions.”

Sometimes, writing about people in power requires journalists to rely on anonymous or confidential sources — a problem for many Americans. While 70% of Americans say journalists should be able to keep sources confidential, that number has been eroding and is down from 85% in 1997.

Getler blames the decline on an increased willingness to give up some freedoms in exchange for security after 9/11, several high profile scandals where a few journalists were shown to have lied, and carelessness in the use of confidential sources. Such sourcing is “too much of a routine matter for newspapers,” Getler said. “It exasperates readers; they feel abused by it. … Editors need to crack down on this and really make good on their pledges to get and press for as much information as possible on the record.”

Panelists discussed two cases currently in the news and in the courts in which journalists have been held in contempt for refusing to identify anonymous sources. In one case, a civil suit, five reporters who refused to disclose confidential sources they used in reporting on Wen Ho Lee, the former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist who was once an espionage suspect, were held in contempt and fined $500 a day. In another case, reporters have been subpoenaed by prosecutors trying to find out who leaked information that former ambassador Joseph Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA operative. It is a felony to leak the name of an undercover operative.

“This has really hit a nerve in the journalists’ community,” Dalglish said. “But by and large, I think the larger principle is going to prevail, and that is when you’re a journalist and you make a promise to a source, you keep your promise.”

Journalists need to keep those promises, Dalglish said, because they “need to be perceived and regarded as being independent sources of information. If they are viewed (as) or in fact become agents of the government, agents of the defense counsel, agents of civil litigants and participants in the legal process, their ability to react independently will be greatly damaged. The result will be people will not talk to journalists and ultimately [people] will not get the information they need to be active citizens in a democracy.”

Getler agreed, noting that the recent high-profile litigation adds to the “perfect storm” that’s gathering over press freedom.

“Someone referred to it as a gathering storm. I think it’s a perfect storm. There’s just … a lot of things happening now,” Getler said. “I’ve been a journalist for more than 40 years, and I don’t remember anything like now, the number of journalists who must contemplate going to jail.

“There’s a very divisive environment out there. I see it all the time just from the mail I get,” Getler said. “There’s a sense that people are very sharply divided, that reasonableness has declined. You’ve got this post-9/11 world which has sharpened everybody’s feelings about these things; you have an administration that’s quite devoted to secrecy in a lot of its forms. You have a Justice Department which may not temper the court rulings, as has happened in the past. But whatever one feels about the press, they are in fact a public watchdog.”

But there’s a growing feeling that the legal system is less willing to protect that watchdog role. Part of the problem, said Mauro, is that the general public’s feeling that the press goes too far has “an eroding or corrosive effect over time.”

“We’ve always had this notion that judges rule apart from the headlines of the day, but I think this overall sense that the press is way too invasive, way too intrusive … it has to have an effect on judges. Judges don’t judge in a vacuum,” Mauro said. “Whenever there’s a case involving the press and privacy even if it’s not, strictly speaking, a First Amendment case, the press loses now because we have become perceived as an annoyance rather than as a positive part of the system.”

The public’s perception of the truth of what they read and hear in the nation’s news media worried several panelists. According to the First Amendment survey, 61% of Americans agree with the statement, “The falsifying or making up of stories in the American news media is a widespread problem.”

Williams was quick to counter this statement. “I think it’s rare when media makes up and falsifies stories. I actually do. And whenever it happens … I think you see the press really shows that they have no tolerance for that.”

Paulson said he found “horrifying” another result that showed that for 30% of respondents, the fabrications by Jack Kelley at USA TODAY and Jayson Blair at The New York Times made them less likely to trust their local newspaper. Speaking to viewers watching the program on C-SPAN, he said, “I would just say to you that this is all about Jack Kelley and Jayson Blair and not about your local newspapers.”

But he noted that such scandals hurt the free press. “What has happened is that when there is a misstep by someone at a newspaper or television, there are a lot of people today who are in the business of running against the press, taking the position that the press is biased so don’t listen to what they have to say. I mean, it’s tougher to be a watchdog if people are saying your bark is untrue,” Paulson said.

The panel discussion took place on Aug. 23 as part of a partnership between the Newseum and the National Press Club.