That Pesky First Amendment Scores Again!

I am often critical of the mainstream media, whom I find too insensitive to the fragility of our democracy in their determination to present “both sides” of issues that often don’t have two sides.

For example, I’m more than frustrated with much of the coverage of the House Republicans’ willingness to throw our economy over the cliff if Biden doesn’t accept the demands of their most radical, irresponsible members.

Instead of focusing on the dangerous Republican behavior, reporters are asking: “Why doesn’t Biden just sit down with Kevin McCarthy and reach a deal?”

By a vote of 217-215, the House Republicans passed a dreadful bill, which McCarthy promised his most far right members would be the floor to any negotiations, leaving no room for a deal they knew would be unacceptable to the President and the Senate.

Oh, and another example of media irresponsibility is the incomprehensible CNN Town Hall to provide the Felon-Getting-Warmer with easy access to New Hampshire’s voters. I guess, in the words of Rupert Murdoch, who surely knows from experience, “It’s all about the green.”

But I have another reason for writing now. Despite these concerns—and my reservations about the commingling of the President, et al, with the press—I like to watch the White House Correspondents’ Association (WCHA) dinner, which was televised Sunday night.

Note: President Biden’s response to questions about his age is often “Watch me!” If you’d like to watch him in action, funny, impish, and lively, you can do so here.

He was especially funny talking about his age, beginning with his affirmation:

“I believe in the First Amendment, and not just because my good friend Jimmy Madison wrote it…”

Good writers; excellent delivery.

Biden was impassioned about one important aspect of the WHCA dinner: it reminds us what a dangerous profession journalism can be. He and others talked about Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter who is now sitting in a Russian prison on phony charges of espionage.

Interestingly, Gershkovich’s parents are Russian emigres, and the President quoted Gershkovich’s mother Ella, who said:

“One of the American qualities that we have absorbed is optimism. That’s where we stand right now.”

He also spoke about the other American journalists his administration is working to free, including Austin Tice, who’s been held in Syria for nearly eleven years, as well as unnamed others in various parts of the globe.

“A free and fearless press—that’s what we honor. You make it possible for ordinary citizens to question authority and yes, even laugh at authority—without fear of threat or retribution.”

Roy Wood, Jr., the comedian who headlined the show with the President, also told the journalists in attendance that

“…the work you do is important. It’s dangerous. My father was a reporter on the front lines with Black platoons in Vietnam. He was in the South African Soweto riots. He covered that. The civil war in Rhodesia, which we know today as Zimbabwe.”

When Wood’s dad returned home, he founded the National Black Network “because he wanted to tell Black stories.”

Wood cast light as well on the economic perils journalists are facing—and the impact of this issue, which I think is insufficiently reported–on what the public learns.

Most national stories, he pointed out,

“at some point were first a local story. And these stories were championed by reporters [working for publications] that many of them have now folded.

“And if we can’t figure out a way to pay local reporters, then as a country we’re only left with that many more blind spots to where the bull is happening.”

He was speaking simultaneously about two audiences, it seemed to me: the specific stories urgently needed to uncover injustices to Black Americans, and the even larger stories.

In one of the latter, Wood’s very funny and clever riff on Justice Clarence Thomas reminded me of America’s debt to the Pro Publica reporters whose documentation of Thomas’s excesses seems to have at last spotlighted the corruption enough to move the Senate to investigate.

But how many people have access to this information?

“People can’t afford journalism stuck behind a paywall. Can’t afford food. Can’t afford an education. They damn sure can’t afford to pay for the truth.”

He acknowledged to his audience,

“…you all can’t afford to find the truth for free. Good journalism costs. That’s the truth of the matter. Good journalism costs the people, but it also costs the journalists. You hear about all these newsrooms getting cuts. We’re cutting people; we’re cutting budgets.

“But you never hear about the multi-million dollar executives reducing their salaries within these organizations.(Emphases mine throughout)

“Now, how do we fix this? I don’t know. I’m a comedian; I’m just up here. It’s not my job to have the solution. That’s on y’all.

But he reiterated that reporting is very important and “we have to defend the journalists.”

Historian Heather Cox Richardson was a guest at the dinner, and she subsequently gave the background for the WHCA’s formation. I’ve excerpted just part of her very interesting overview.

The power to control what citizens can publish about the government would give leaders the power to destroy democracy.

A free press is imperative to keep people informed about what leaders are doing. Lose it, and those in power can do whatever they wish without accountability.

“While at first the reporters simply wanted access to the president, as the WHCA became an established force it came to work for transparency more generally, recognizing that journalists are the main eyes and voice of the people. It now protects press passes for journalists who regularly cover the White House and assigns seats in the briefing room. It also funds scholarships for aspiring journalists and gives journalism awards; the annual dinner is their main fundraising event.

“In the modern era there is plenty of criticism over the glitzy dinner and what seems too much chumminess between journalists and lawmakers.

But the demonstration that the government cannot censor the press is valuable. For the four years of the past administration, the president refused to attend the dinner and barred his staff and other officials from attending.

“The same president called the press the ‘enemy of the people,’ encouraging his supporters to attack reporters. Angry at negative stories about him from Voice of America, Trump replaced the independent editor of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA, with Michael Pack, a close ally of Trump strategist Steve Bannon. Pack set out to turn the channel into a pro-Trump mouthpiece. U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell later concluded that Pack’s firing, disciplining, and investigating of journalists who didn’t toe the line violated the First Amendment.

The Dominion lawsuit against Fox, and those that will follow, have brought new concerns to the fore, as some of the Supreme Court justices have expressed the desire to reexamine New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan, the bedrock case in support of freedom of the press.

As with every other aspect of our democracy, we’re learning, we must continue working to ensure the survival of the fundamentals.

Here’s Heather Cox Richardson’s hopeful conclusion:

“The dance between the government and the press is intricate and full of missteps, but last night, at an event where journalists wore pins that read, ‘I stand with Evan,’ this historian found the public reminder that the president must answer to journalists, with grace if at all possible, oddly moving.”


26 thoughts on “That Pesky First Amendment Scores Again!

  1. It’s all about the green.

    It may be inevitable that as media organizations get bigger, they get more timid. When there are employees to pay and shareholders to satisfy, the issue of revenue looms ever larger, and leads to a desire not to risk offending advertisers or losing a substantial chunk of one’s established audience. Telling the whole truth or distancing oneself from a dangerous but popular (in some quarters) demagogue become less important. That doesn’t mean centrism or moderation. Fox News had entrenched itself in the niche of catering to a certain audience, so that after the 2020 election, they had to keep parroting Trump’s “stolen election” stuff even though they knew it to be false. They couldn’t afford to tell their established audience things which that audience didn’t want to hear.

    Smaller, newer, less advertising-dependent news entities that still have that fire in the belly for getting the word out, that view their own existence as a means to that end rather than the primary thing to protect, that in some cases focus on a particular topic rather than trying to cover all news comprehensively — I’m thinking of Crooks & Liars, Common Dreams, Reduxx, The Bulwark, and suchlike — are probably closer to what “the press” was like at the time the First Amendment was written than today’s corporatized media behemoths are. They often have a strong editorial viewpoint which affects their choice of what to cover — but the big media entities usually do as well, and by reading a wide range of sources one can compensate for the biases of any one of them. And with the internet, even a small news organization has a potentially national or even global reach.

    They are also probably less vulnerable to government censorship. A few giant media corporations with fixed headquarters and assets, with deep financial roots and entanglements, are much more vulnerable to government pressure than hundreds of smaller organizations, each run by a scattering of people often in several different countries, with a mostly online presence that could quickly be moved if necessary.

    Audiences — citizens — have a role to play as well. There are technological work-arounds for most kinds of internet censorship. It’s up to us as participants in a free society to stay familiar with them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’ve touched on a few noticeable trends, Infidel, though I think bigness doesn’t necessarily equate with caution. Some fine journalism still makes its way onto the pages of the Washington Post, for example.

      I am familiar with Crooks & Liars and the Bulwark and will look into the other two you mentioned. I worry, though, about all these independent journalists who have so much to offer and so little apparent backing. Judd Legum at Popular Information is one: his coverage of No Labels was in depth and important.

      I strongly agree that citizens have a role to play. But here I find Roy Wood Jr’s warning instructive. It’s essential to increase access to and training about the Internet to reach the millions of Americans who today “can’t afford to pay for the truth.”

      Liked by 3 people

  2. The problem with six opinions is that you only have six opinions. Whatever you know is only a tiny portion of what can be known. Even if they didn’t cultivate the news for what they want you to know they don’t know what they don’t know so they can’t tell us anyway. Media concentration and cost of things doomed print something else is causing the death of truth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t feel that we are living in the midst of the “death of truth”—though there are greater challenges to what many of us regard as truth—worldwide, of course. And the challenges in the US are well-financed and are aimed at undermining institutions that have long been in existence as accepted norms. So I think more responsibility lies with those of us who recognize the importance of the norms to civilized society—regardless of our politics.
      Does that make sense, Richard—or anyone else who’d like to respond?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You are of course right, truth cannot be destroyed. The Truth is often uncomfortable and inimical to immediate goals. The strategy to overcome this “problem” is ancient and perfectly stated by multi shirt Steve Bannon “bury it in bullshit”. Even when you dig it out, it stinks.
        Responsibility is not a capitalistic value. I try to follow the 12 points of the Scout’s Law. The first of which is a Scout is trustworthy. I will never ask that you trust me. I believe priceless and free both mean worthless. Responsibility means taking the blame. Their leader is the king of “NOT MY FAULT”. Responsibility is for the confident, for the brave. They have no reference, they stink of fear, they arm their two year old’s. “Those of us” will not be paid.


      2. There is not a literal “death of truth”, certainly not compared to most previous eras or many foreign countries, in which speaking the truth about certain things could/can get you arrested. What I do see as a distinctive modern problem is the death of the consensus concept of objective reality.

        In 1918-1920, there may have been different views about how to handle the influenza epidemic, but as far as I know there were no influential voices claiming that the epidemic actually was not happening. Such claims today about covid or global warming are bizarre, and at least at their current level of influence, relatively new. The roots of this kind of reality-denial go back to fundamentalist rejection of evolution and to the weird deconstructionist and anti-objectivity ideologies that began to infest certain aspects of academia around half a century ago, but those things were confined to crank subcultures that didn’t have much impact on the consensus on which actual public policy was based, nor on the serious media. Today reality-denial has gone mainstream. The willingness to dismiss even easily-verifiable facts as “fake news” or mere opinion, and the deference of some of the media to such delusions, is dangerous.

        It’s important to distinguish between this and ordinary differences of opinion, even stark ones. A person who believes Trump was the greatest president ever, or that different races should be kept segregated, or that Hitler was justified, is manifesting the kind of differences of viewpoint we’ve always had even if extreme ones. A person who insist that anthropogenic global warming is not happening is in denial about a verifiable fact of objective reality. The normalization of such denial is not the “death of truth”, but it’s a serious attack on the concept of truth.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent, Annie! I did see clips of both Biden’s and Wood’s talks and thoroughly enjoyed both. I fear that there are too many in this nation who do not understand the great importance of a free press, nor do they understand what would happen without it. It seems that some people never appreciate something until they lose it, but this is too critical for us to lose, for we might never get it back. This is just one small part of the reason that Donald Trump can NEVER sit in the Oval Office again, no matter what! Great post … thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Jill. That indifference is certainly a worry, along with the lack of accessibility that Roy Wood pointed out. In discussions of Biden’s low poll numbers, for example, there is often a high number of people who say he hasn’t done anything—despite all that this administration has accomplished. There are various reasons for that misconception, but one may be that people just aren’t receiving the relevant information.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. In the “Google” age this ignorance is willful. This is what angers me. These are the free riders that do far more harm then all of my criminal friends.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m sure you are right … I pay for subscriptions to three major news sources, The Guardian, New York Times, and The Washington Post, but I’m lucky to be able to do so … not everyone can. But then, the other side of that coin is that there is a significant portion of the population who prefer to get their news from those like Fox who tell them what they want to hear instead of the truth. They give them someone to blame for their troubles, someone to hate, and they’re quite content to believe what they are told. Sigh.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. That’s a very good and clear distinction, Infidel: “the death of the consensus concept of objective reality.” On my more optimistic days, however, I think/hope we’re seeing that the consensus about verifiable objective reality is in critical condition—not dead, or even moribund.

    Requiring Fox to state publicly that they know they’ve been broadcasting the Big Lie (returning to “it’s all about the green”)—which remains a possibility in the Smartmatic case—would at least provide smelling salts to people at the margins.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    Our friend Annie airs some of her frustrations with the “mainstream” media today, and I share her views. Ever since Chris Licht took over at CNN, the network has swapped truth-telling for leaning to the right of center, as is evidenced by their upcoming ‘town hall’ with the ignoble Donald Trump. But Annie also talks of the White House Correspondents Association dinner that was held last Sunday. She shares two great clips that are a must-see, and shares her views, again views with which I fully concur! Thank you, Annie, for this excellent post reminding us of just how crucial true freedom of the press is to our democracy … or what remains of it.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I think it’s because we get so many US TV channels here. I do watch the evening Canadian news and sometimes the 24 hr Canadian news show, but it’s no comparison to CNN and the correspondents dinner happened to be on CNN. I always enjoy the comedians. Yesterday I turned it on NBC and watched the Kentucky Derby as it was the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s amazing win. And then we watched parts of the Coronation of course (CNN again) as Canada is a Commonwealth country, although no one here really cares about the monarchy anymore. I’m eagerly awaiting the outcome of the felon’s current trial this week.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. About that trial: We always fall into thinking “this time it will be different.” But wow, that video of his deposition was really something. It would be disgraceful if the jury didn’t find him guilty based on his own words.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Wonderful post, Annie. Thank you for your work. Meanwhile, is it me, or did the phrase about Gershkovich’s parents adopting the “optimism” of America kinda jump out at you . . . Optimism? Is that what we are culturally — optimistic?

    Liked by 1 person

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