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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Eagle

American Forum focuses on media rights

The news media needs some good PR, said School of Communication professor Jane Hall and several First Amendment experts in the American Forum "Does Anyone Still Believe in the First Amendment?"

"Rush Limbaugh was out there for an hour ripping apart an article in the New York Times. I didn't hear the Times for an hour telling me what they did that was good today," Hall said at the forum, attended by more than 200 students Tuesday night.

The discussion was spurred by a University of Connecticut study that found that more than one-third of high school students believe the government should approve newspaper stories before publication. Other studies by groups including the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the National Opinion Research Center and the Project for Excellence in Journalism, also found that Americans' attitudes toward the media's value, credibility and fairness remain negative, with both liberals and conservatives accusing news outlets of bias.

"Bush's communication people don't try to educate the Press Corps because they don't see the Press Corps as a valid medium to reach the people," said Robert A. Rankin, government and politics editor for Knight Ridder's D.C. news bureau.

Panelists also noted that the Bush administration limits press access in a way some panelists said is "unprecedented," exhibiting this government's "corporate values" approach to communication.

However, the public sees the media as a "corporate entity" as well, said panelist Ronald K. L. Collins, a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.

"There's a perception that the media in itself is a powerful institution, it's a biased institution," he said.

However, Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said that the media have not really declined in the past 20 years.

"In a way it's better because there are more voices, more perspectives, looking at the media as a whole, not the mainstream," Goodman said, adding that the media are held to higher standards of accountability than ever before because of the Internet.

Panelist Michael Massing, author of "Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq," disagreed, calling the media's coverage after 9/11 "one of the most serious institutional failures since Vietnam."

"We live in a climate of intimidation," said Massing, co-founder of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "Often there's an incredible amount of self-censorship [among journalists]."

Though the media seemed afraid of appearing unpatriotic in reporting controversial stories after 9/11, coverage was also impacted by limited access to information, said some panelists.

"There are many changes that have been made to federal law in particular that are shutting down information that used to be available to the public ... down to the local level," said panelist Lucy Dalglish, executive editor of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "Even if your state's open records law ordinarily would apply, the feds are saying, 'no you can't have that information.' This is a problem not with the media not reporting information, but with the media not being able to get the information."

The information journalists do get, particularly through anonymous sources, is also in "crisis," Dalglish said.

"[In the past,] every once in a while we'd have a journalist in trouble. Now we've evolved to a situation where we have about 30 journalists who are under subpoenas ... and they face either jail time or steep fines for refusing to identify a confidential source. This goes straight to the issue of media independence," Dalglish said. "The reason we have traditionally in this country protected journalists rights to protect confidential sources is we wanted them to be able to provide information to the public."

One reason the public may not offer more support to these subpoenaed journalists may be because of journalists who have been caught fabricating information, like Jayson Blair of The New York Times and Jack Kelley of USA Today.

"They were scandals ... self-inflicted wounds of the news media," Rankin said, adding that such journalists are the exception to the rule, but that the public might not perceive that.

Such scandals are "red meat" for bloggers, which is not necessarily a bad thing, Collins said.

"Bloggers at least potentially serve as another check on powerful institutions, not only the government but the press. Of course there's always the credibility question. Remember there's not the filter there," he said.

However, news organizations are more transparent about their scandals than other professions, Dalglish said.

"They came out, they were exposed, people were disgraced, they were fired or stepped down, we took care of it and we let the public know we were sorry. There are not a lot of professions that when they screw up they do it in such a public way and respond as quickly," she said.

Another problem is some high school journalists aren't learning the value of the press because they are as repressed as those in a "Third-World dictatorship," Goodman said.

"I think if students experience a free press in high school we'd see a larger appreciation for the First Amendment in the world at large," he said.

The discussion, sponsored by the SOC Undergraduate Council, could be heard on AU's NPR affiliate, WAMU 88.5 FM or at www.wamu.org. The American Forum program, which began in 1986, offers four debates each year on media practices and the policies that affect them.


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