Spirited Talk on First Amendment at ASNE

By: Joe Strupp

A parade of newspaper industry veterans, from subpoenaed reporters to a lawyer representing student journalists, urged members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors Tuesday to do more in the fight for press freedom.

One by one, in short interviews conducted by USA Today Editor Ken Paulson, the group that ranged from Hearst General Counsel Eve Burton to legendary journalist John Seigenthaler, proclaimed this the worst time for reporter rights in decades and demanded that editors increase their efforts to battle against the push for source exposure and clampdowns on press access.

?We were the good guys,? Paulson told the crowd, referring to the depiction of reporters in films and comic books of the past, especially Superman?s Clark Kent. ?Times have changed. You don?t see reporters cast in a good light anymore. Respect for our profession has declined.?

Then, as he questioned each guest individually, they offered reasons for the decreased press rights in recent years, blaming journalists themselves on many occasions.

?Your profession has failed to see the train coming down the tracks, we have lost all three branches of government for the first time in history,? Burton said of the support for press rights. ?For the first time in 30 years we have seen the judiciary rule against us pretty consistently.?

Noting that Hearst had received its 100th subpoena in the past two years earlier in the day, related to a reporter at one of its TV stations, Burton said the press itself is partly to blame for the onslaught of anti-journalistic government action. ?There is not fraternity among us anymore,? she said of news outlets supporting each other. She also criticized editors for not doing more to support the upcoming federal shield law fight. ?I don?t know why all of us are not up on [Capitol] Hill talking about it,? she said. ?These people on the Hill, they respond.?

Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, the San Francisco Chronicle reporters who broke the BALCO steroid scandal and recently just missed being jailed for refusing to reveal their source, also weighed in. ?Though we remain free, there is a threat that continues,? Fainaru-Wada told editors. ?There are stories that are not being told because people are afraid of going to jail.?

Williams agreed, adding that he was surprised that more news outlets did not come to his and Fainaru-Wada?s aide when jail was looming. ?We had to kind of scratch to get commentary,? he said. ?If the free press won?t stand up for the rights of the First Amendment, who will??

Seigenthaler, the legendary editor and founder of the First Amendment Center who also served under Attorney General Robert Kennedy, said the challenge for the press is ?stronger than ever before.?

?You?d be hard-pressed to find a time when the cloak [of government secrecy] was more tightly wound,? he told editors. ?It has never been easy, but I don?t think it has ever been tougher than it is now.?

Others offered examples of the growing loss of press freedoms and efforts to curtail the right to report the truth. Gene Policinski of the First Amendment Center quoted recent surveys that said 42% of the public believes the press has too much freedom, and that 83% believe media bias exists in some way. ?It is a disturbing fact,? he said. ?It seems that the public has moved from criticism and through skepticism to cynicism. So free to distrust the press.?

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said he had seen more campus administrators censoring student publications. ?There are more and more school administrators today who are proud of being labeled censors,? he said. ?It is almost a badge of honor. I really feel that our schools have failed in teaching students and administrators about freedom of the press.?

Finally, Paul Boyle, senior vice president/government affairs for the Newspaper Association of America, urged editors to use their newspapers in an effort to counter the growing anti-press fervor. ?Writing editorials in support of First Amendment principles is important, but take it a step further,? he said. ?Newspapers need to take the initiative and invite elected officials in, not at election time.?

Paulson ended by reiterating the push for more newspaper involvement in press freedom issues. ?Some may say this is preaching to the choir ? I wish, choirs sing,? he said. ?This choir needs to sing out loud and clear.?

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