Monday, April 14, 2014

In Defense of Press Freedom

I confess that I have mixed emotions about the case of Sharyl Attkisson, formerly an investigative reporter for CBS.

As I have written here many times, I am a First Amendment advocate. Well, actually, I believe in the Constitution — always have — and I am as apt to quote passages from it as other people are to cite quotations from the Bible, but everything comes back to the First Amendment. I don't believe any of the other freedoms we enjoy (and, in many cases, take for granted) would be possible without it.

I have worked for newspapers and a trade magazine, and I can sympathize with Attkisson's apparent frustration. She has said her reputation within CBS was that she was a "troublemaker" for pursuing leads on stories that were at odds with the White House's policies/stated positions.

I'm sure that much, if not all, of what she says is true. When she submitted the results of her investigations to the decision–makers in CBS' news division, she probably did receive many compliments for her work, which has always been solid, and she probably was told, from time to time, that there wasn't sufficient time to run it in its entirety.

At that point, I suppose, the editing process in broadcasting may well have subjected her work to, as she has put it, "the death of a thousand cuts." That's the kind of thing that can easily happen when one is trying to put together a page in a newspaper and space is limited — and the article is reviewed by several sets of eyes. Cuts are made, words are changed. Things happen. It isn't a conspiracy.

I am sure it was frustrating. I have seen people on the print side — I have even been one of them myself — who put a lot of time and effort into their work, only to have it diced up before it ended up on a page.

I'm sure the same thing happens in broadcasting.

In my own experience, I can say that it is beyond frustrating to have your work shredded in such a way, and, when it is, you find yourself open to any and all suggestions for why it happened. If, as is the case with Attkisson, your politics differ from your employer's, you may wonder if that explains what happened.

Fact is, things happen. As hard as it may be to accept, it probably wasn't intentional. It's too easy — and unfair — to blame the media. But, even if it is true, it is probably going to be too hard to prove. That's how our system is set up. The burden of proof is on the accuser, not the accused.

That's in the Constitution.

The accusations of media bias by both sides have never been as shrill in my lifetime as they are today. There have been times in my life when I worked for employers who did not share my views, and it did cross my mind, when something I wrote was severely cut, that politics may have had something to do with it.

(I occupied a much lower rung on the journalist's ladder than Attkisson, though.)

But the media cannot be as conveniently labeled as paranoid extremists on both sides would like the rest of us believe. The media in this country are not as monolithic as that. Not even close. Journalists really are like any other demographic group; they do not have the same mind, and they do not think the same things — but many do share the same motivations.

I hear conservatives accusing the media of being liberal, and I hear liberals accusing the media of being conservative — both are correct, and neither is correct. Political leanings certainly play a role in the running of media outlets. It would be naive to presume that they do not. But politics is not the whole story.

The media operate the way everything else does in a free–market society. Individual decisions are made. Some are good. Some are bad. Individual decisions on the upper level have an impact on everyone below.

Profit margins have a lot to do with those decisions. In my work for newspapers, I was always aware of the importance of circulation and advertising revenue. Given a choice between their principles and their financial security, my guess is that most journalists will opt for security — even if that means they must stand up for their principles in less overt ways.

But I was also aware of the fact that journalists are eager to cultivate favor from their sources — and that can make things complicated if the reporter doesn't maintain a certain distance from the source.

Those ratings and profits rely on access to the influential and the powerful. It has been alleged as long as I can remember that there have been reporters — at the White House, on Capitol Hill, etc. — who become a bit too chummy with their sources.

And, when I hear Attkisson speak of the chilling effect that experiences like hers can have on this profession, it strikes a nerve with me. I worry about the same thing.

How does all this relate to the Attkisson situation? I don't know. I just know that profit is always a factor in a business decision, and news outlets may be particularly vulnerable; when times have been hard, newspapers traditionally are among the first to feel the influence of a bad economy and among the last to recover from one. In my own experience, when newspapers have had to make tough decisions under such circumstances, it is easy for the workers to misinterpret things that are said and/or done. Human nature, I suppose.

(I have never worked for a broadcasting outlet, but I assume that profit would be defined, in part, by ratings.)

Attkisson was with CBS for more than two decades. There have been some rocky economic years in there — as well as some boom times — but CBS never fired her. The quality of her work was not an issue.

Given that, I guess, if I had been in Attkisson's position, I might be inclined to think what she apparently thinks.

The press is free, like any other business in America. The owners of a particular newspaper or TV station may have a certain set of principles that differs from their employees, just like owners and employees in other fields can and certainly do disagree.

And Atkisson is free to take her stand, which she does at her website. If you go there, you will find this, her statement of principle, I guess: "Resisting undue corporate, political and other special interests."

Because of the nature of this business, it may be easier to suspect that politics is behind certain decisions — but suspicion is not the same as proof of guilt, in a courtroom or a newsroom.

In fairness to Attkisson, she has not accused CBS of anything resembling a conspiracy. She has merely suggested that there was a pattern in the decisions that were made and the actions that were taken. But that cannot be accepted as proof.

A person cannot be found guilty of something because of a guess or a hunch. That's in the Constitution, too.

Freedom of the press can be a complicated, sometimes fragile, thing, but its preservation is essential in the existence of a republic.

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