(Front page of the New York Times, June 13, 1971, First release of the Pentagon Papers)
Two words about why Freedom of the Press is sacred to sustain our democracy: Pentagon Papers. The amazing Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War showing for the first time this week on PBS includes numerous grim reminders of the outright lies and deliberate dissembling among numerous leaders — U.S. presidents in both parties, military leaders, cabinet secretaries, political operatives — that proved to be a decades-long and miles-deep effort to keep the American public from knowing the true extent of the catastrophe that unfolded in Vietnam from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. Without courageous and persistent journalists working tirelessly to dig out the truth from beneath the turgid mess of lives destroyed and social chaos, Vietnam might have gone on for many more years, the death toll mounting, the American society growing ever more bitterly divided. From Morley Safer of CBS News reporting directly from the killing fields to the New York Times taking the risk of publishing the Pentagon study released by Daniel Ellsberg, the truth would never have emerged.
The Pentagon Papers is just one of many extraordinary moments when the value of a free press in our society became starkly clear. Another such moment came just a few years later when the investigative reporting of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post exposed the Watergate scandal and led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Nixon’s resignation was, in many ways, the true end of the Vietnam War, a consequence of the decades of lies and deception that characterized too much of presidential behavior in that era — and that, sadly, continues today. No era is safe from deception; at all times throughout history, a free press must operate as a counterweight to government since government’s instinct is to control and cover, while the press instinct is to root out and expose. In the very tension between the two great pillars of a free society, We the People absorb the facts and opinions and information and stories and tall tales and myths and try to come up with a reasonable set of political and social choices to move forward with the social compact.
Freedom of the Press is always at risk. I’ve been reading Hamilton (the book by Ron Chernow) and it’s as good a reminder as any that even the guys who wrote the immortal words of the First Amendment generally hated the press and complained bitterly about unfair treatment in the newspapers of that day. When the current president goes on a tirade about today’s media, he’s echoing Thomas Jefferson’s lament that, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” Jefferson was not always the hero of freedom that history’s mythology makes him out to be. Neither was George Washington who decided against running for a third term largely because he despised the press. While acknowledging the often-rocky relationship between the press and the president, it’s also fair to say that the current administration’s attacks on the media are curious given the concomitant manipulation of media for their own purposes. The love-hate relationship is painfully clear every day.
For Constitution Day 2017, we conducted a straw poll of the Trinity community probing opinions about the First Amendment. My prior blog provided a snapshot of the answers to the questions on Freedom of Speech. In this blog I provide the snapshot of the answers to the questions on Freedom of the Press. Later this week we’ll review the questions on freedom of religion.
Here are the responses of the Trinity community to the straw poll questions on Freedom of the Press:
The first question:
With regard to Freedom of the Press, I believe that traditional print and broadcast media (“mainstream media”) are reliable sources of accurate news
83.02% of the faculty/staff responded “strongly agree” or “agree” with this statement.
67.35% of the students responded “strongly agree” or “agree” with this statement.
“For the most part yes, but all media is subject to getting it wrong sometimes and there are some outlets known for sensationalism and questionable reporting. Individuals have a responsibility to apply critical thinking and further research before accepting facts.”
“This depends on the source, but by and large, I think most MSM outlets, while they may have a clear bias, aren’t fabricating stories out of thin air.”
“I am a skeptic when it comes to the accuracy of news.”
“The media is a very powerful entity. Some networks have failed to demonstrate ethical responsibility…”
I suppose it’s not surprising that there’s a big gap here:
37% of students replied “strongly agree” or “agree” but only 16.98% of faculty did the same.
However, what’s striking is that the majority on both sides disagreed with the statement — and here’s the most interesting variance: 32.08% of students said “strongly disagree” while 10.42% of faculty chose “strongly disagree.”
“News can easily spread through those media platforms but a lot of the time they are not accurate.”
“Sometimes Twitter gives very false information and Facebook as well.”
“Always important to check sources and only trust reliable sources.”
“Accurate news can be found on these platforms as credible news organizations do use these channels to distribute information. However, social media is user generated content and most of the content distributors do not practice journalistic integrity and research practices….”
Government should intervene when a news outlet spreads fake news
Interestingly enough, 59.8% of students “strongly agree” or “agree” with this statement compared to 46.16% of the faculty and staff respondents. As with the responses to hate speech in the previous part of the poll, students seem to be more willing to have limitations imposed on these freedoms. This correlates fairly closely with the results of a recent Brookings Institution study of college student views of the First Amendment.
“We, the people, need to decide for ourselves what is the truth.”
“Government is the one that’s spreading fake news.”
“Government should never intervene in the press.”
“The deep blue news outlets have gone haywire and have become an arm of the left, it’s unfortunate to see such biased opinions.”
“…as a democratic society we need to find a way to delegitimize disinformation…”
I read newspapers every day
Whoa — not surprising, but still….
73.59% of faculty/staff “strongly agree” or “agree” that they read newspapers every day.
35.41% of students read newspapers every day. Hmmm.
Among faculty and staff, the Washington Post outpaces the New York Times two to one, with other papers read including such disparate rags as the Washington Business Journal, the Guardian, the Hill, the Chronicle of Higher Education and online news sources like Huffington Post, the Root, etc.
Students who admitted to reading newspapers all read the Washington Post, with two daring to name the New York Times. (My sheroes!)
ZERO faculty/staff chose “strongly” agree with this statement, while 24.53% said “agree.”
14.58% of students said they “strongly agree” and 37.50% “agree” for a majority of students saying yes, most of their news comes from social media.
What social media?
For students, Twitter seems to be the top source, with just a few mentions for Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat.
For faculty, Facebook seems to be the top source, Twitter not so much, and the news online from mainstream media sources including the Washington Post, New York Times, Think Progress, The Atlantic, Salon, NPR. But faculty are skeptical and hardly frequent users of social media. “I only check Facebook every few months,” writes one. No wonder my messages are not returned!!
I watch a lot of news on television
More agreement here. 50% of faculty and 48% of students “strongly agree” or “agree.”
Students prefer Fox 5, other local channels, and CNN.
Faculty/staff watch NBC and MSNBC, CNN, ABC, CBS, BBC, PBS and C-Span. One vote for Channel 4 news with the comment, “The news is reported objectively and professionally; the difficult and harsh events are handled truthfully yet tastefully.”
But perhaps the most pungent comment from a faculty member was, “Disconnected our T.V.” And several others said they never watch TV at all.
Wow, so many interesting replies, a lot to think about here. And if you liked these summaries…. just wait til my next blog summarizing the response to the questions on FREEDOM OF RELIGION! Not to be missed…
Thanks to everyone who participated!
Join the conversation through the comment box below.
Follow me on Twitter @TrinityPrez (ok, yes, I do follow numerous news outlets on Twitter… and then I read the papers online. Does that count as “reading a newspaper”???? Yes!!)