Free-press freedoms are under attack, but does anyone care?
Sunday, February 13, 2005
Press freedom: One-third think First Amendment rights go too far
The story of Jim Taricani frightens journalists.
I'm curious to find out whether it scares readers.
Taricani, a reporter in Providence, R.I., sits under house arrest.
He told a story of government corruption.
A judge sentenced him late last year to six months' house arrest for refusing to name a source who gave him a secret FBI videotape that showed a Providence city official taking a bribe. The only reason he sentenced Taricani to house arrest instead of jail time is because of the TV reporter's health; he had a heart transplant in 1996.
Taricani's case strikes fear among journalists because a federal court is targeting a fundamental tool for a free press. And Taricani has growing company.
As many as 34 reporters and news organizations face legal actions aiming to learn the names of sources of their stories, many of which might lead to fines or possible jail time. Those sources' confidentiality is key to exercising the freedom to the press granted under the First Amendment.
"These are ugly times," says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which finds the number staggering and unprecedented.
The public needs to recall the stories of public service, such as Watergate, that only came about because reporters protected the identity of sources. "Because of 'Deep Throat,' two ordinary reporters revealed massive corruption in the office of the president," Dalglish says. "There are many, many stories that only came forward because confidential sources came forward and told a reporter."
But do readers care?
Surveys find widespread misunderstanding of the First Amendment and ones by the by the First Amendment Center also consistently show that at least two out of five Americans believe the press has too much freedom under the amendment.
Attitudes of young people reflected in a new survey also suggest respect for the First Amendment might decline in the future, further tightening press restrictions and threatening the public's access to information.
The survey of more than 100,000 students sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation found that nearly three-fourths either do not know how they feel about the First Amendment or admit they take it for granted. Only 51 percent surveyed believe newspapers should be able to publish freely without government approval of stories, an astounding number in a democratic society. More than a third think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.
"If a third of the students in America thought the Pledge of Allegiance went too far, would that be a problem? That would be a huge problem -- there would be huge uproar" if they wouldn't say it, says Eric Newton, director of journalism initiatives for the Knight Foundation. "Just because the First Amendment is more complicated than the Pledge of Allegiance doesn't mean that it's not as important. In fact, it's more important."
Still, some would argue that the Iraq war and a new era of terrorism demand a new view of the rights of the press. Because the country is at war, they see writing about problems with the war effort as counterproductive to the cause of freedom. How is the public served when columnist Robert Novak outs a CIA agent? In a new era of terrorism, the freedom of the press won't mean much, they argue, if enemies end our freedoms.
And journalists certainly have a hand in what might be a decline in the value of the First Amendment.
When journalists such as Jack Kelley of USA Today and Jayson Blair of The New York Times fabricate stories, they abuse the rights afforded by the amendment. When the media fails to bring skepticism to administration claims about the weapons of mass destruction, it doesn't fulfill its responsibilities derived through the amendment. And when journalists focus on the sensational aspects of cases involving O.J. Simpson, Kobe Bryant and Scott Peterson, they trivialize the amendment.
I'm hoping more readers will elaborate on their views of the First Amendment by taking a portion of the survey below to foster a conversation with journalists.
We'd also love to hear the views of Taricani from his home prison.
The problem is, his house-arrest sentence muzzles him, prohibiting the newsman from talking to the press.
http://www.oregonlive.com/news/oregonia ... 192781.xml