All “Press” Is Not Created Equal

NOTE:  Today I am adding “Media” as a new category.  I originally thought posts related to the media would fall under either “Politics” or “Culture.”  However, the quality of coverage during this electoral cycle continues to raise so many questions I now feel they deserve their own category.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This addition to the Constitution, along with the next nine amendments, is referred to as the “Bill of Rights.”  As  documented in numerous Supreme Court cases, none of these rights are absolute.  Freedom of speech, famously, does not give you permission to shout “fire” in a crowded theater.  Assembly must be done “peaceably.” Petitioning the Government does not include threatening the life of public officials.  In general, access to these rights demands a modicum of responsibility by each citizen.

How does this apply to “freedom of the press?”  First, we need to explore what the founding fathers meant by the word “press.”  There was no “media” in 1789; the written word was the primary means of distributing the news in the form of newspapers or circulars which were produced on printing presses.  Thus, the distinction between “freedom of speech” (i.e. individual expression of an idea) versus “the press” (mass distribution).

Second, we must understand the difference between written journalism and television/radio journalism.  One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was, “Never send the first draft of a negative email.”  My mentor was promoting the value of avoiding conflict by finding a more factual and less emotional way of communicating my displeasure with an event or issue.  Print journalists have this advantage over their electronic-based colleagues.  Newspaper reporters or columnists have an opportunity to edit and re-edit their work.  They have the luxury of fact checking.  And in many instances, they seek feedback from their editors or colleagues before submitting their work for publication.

What we see on TV or hear on radio is often immediate and presented in raw form.  Correspondents on digital media generally do not stop in the middle of an interview and ask, “Would you mind if we take a break while I Google whether what you just said is true?” Nor do they have the luxury of rephrasing a statement or opinion.  Let me give you a recent example.  On cable news, a reporter questioned a Trump surrogate about his having changed his mind whether Japan should have its own nuclear weapons rather than depending on the United States for its defense.  The surrogate’s response, “Mr. Trump did not say that.”  The interviewer, “So, you’re saying his position has not changed.”  Unintentionally (giving him the benefit of the doubt), the interviewer had shifted the conversation from Trump’s veracity to whether the Republican nominee’s position had evolved or not.

In contrast, a print journalist would have pulled the quote from the CNN town hall on March 29 in which the candidate stated:

You have so many countries already — China, Pakistan, you have so many countries, Russia — you have so many countries right now that have them. Now, wouldn’t you rather, in a certain sense, have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons?

Equally important, the print journalist had time to reflect on the interview and determine the major takeaway from the conversation.

In hindsight, the TV commentator should have been able to do the same thing, but that required better preparation.  Was he caught off guard when the surrogate denied her candidate had ever suggested Japan obtain nuclear weapons?  Shouldn’t he have had the March 29 quote in his notes, just in case she did?

As stated earlier, I believe print journalists have an advantage in reporting the news.  But the disadvantage to TV and radio personalities does not relieve them on their journalistic responsibilities.  If TV reporters want to benefit from constitutional protections such as “freedom of the press,” they need to find a way to emulate their in-print colleagues.

For what it’s worth,