You’ve heard it said that the First Amendment gives us the right to free speech, but it doesn’t give us the right to yell “Fire” in a crowded theater. In other words, with rights come certain responsibilities. We’re not given carte blanche to say anything we want at any time. The First Amendment also gives us the right of a free press, in the same breath, in fact, as it gives the right to free speech. From this, I think we can assume that the framers saw these rights as practically the same—one being spoken, the other written.
The media are given a huge portion of power. The ability to inform is underestimated by most, yet abused by many. God chose to reveal His will to mankind through the spoken and written word. Jesus is referred to in the New Testament as the “Word.” Words can communicate either truth, error or, as is often the case, both. The wrong word at the wrong time can send the wrong message. But the right word at the right time can bring understanding. We are all guilty of misusing words at times, but when it becomes a habit, we need to evaluate our communication skills. I believe the media in this country are at this particular crossroad.
The restraints and responsibilities that the media should be exercising have long since vanished into the rabbit-hole of partisan politics. It’s no secret that every media outlet has a particular point of view on what is being reported—no one is truly objective. FOX News can claim that “We report, you decide,” but hopefully we’re all a little smarter than that. FOX has an agenda, just as much as CNN has. But the real point here is fact-checking. How, in our media-saturated world, can we ever really know the REAL story? Gary and I try to be careful in the articles that we post on this site to footnote things that need footnoting. You, the reader, have the right to know when an unoriginal phrasing or thought enters our writings, so that you can check it out for yourself, if you so desire. But when was the last time that you saw a footnote in your newspaper? Editorial sections are the biggest culprits of this. No one person assigns his name to the lead piece; the implication being that the “Editorial staff” has come to this opinion collectively. Personal attacks, caricatures, misrepresentations and downright lies can roll off the press with no names or references attached.
The Judith Miller/Scooter Libby/Karl Rove/CIA/“He said, She said” fiasco shows one thing loud and clear: In the world of news reporting and journalism, keeping your sources secret is an honorable thing. In an arena that is theoretically dedicated to getting at the truth, anonymous sources are the ones driving the bus, with zero accountability. This code of ethics among media insiders was never meant to allow half-truths and hearsay to be printed as truth. It was supposed to be like the blurry oval that is used in crime documentaries, giving someone close to the action a chance to tell the story without revealing their identity, for their own safety. To put this in perspective, imagine turning in a term paper with absolutely no sources, no references, no bibliography and no footnotes. Reporters do this every single day. Two newspapers (or news channels) can report radically different stories about the same event and we accept it. Don’t like what the New York Times has to say? Then read the Washington Times. CNN too “liberal” for you? Flip on over to FOX, they’ll give you the “conservative” side of the story. And on and on it goes. And now we have bloggers getting in on the action. If you have an opinion (and I’m sure you do), start reporting, somebody out there will read it.
The “free press” ideal of the Constitutional framers was never meant for us to become a society of individual reporters. The reason that everybody wants to be heard is because nobody is saying anything worth listening to. As long as ideology—whether it’s political, religious, sexual orientation, cultural, tribal, or whatever—continues to drive the media, it will continue to get more fragmented and individualistic. When “truth” is arrived at only after it has been distilled through someone’s ideological grid and washed clean of anything that may offend their sensibilities, it is no longer truth. It is an opinion baptized in current events. Personally, I am rather tired of having to read three news stories to get the big picture of one event. Anyway, they say history always repeats itself. Maybe I’ll just wait for the re-run…