Violence against the Press: Policing the Public Sphere in U.S. History

By John Nerone | Go to book overview

support regulating expression, at least some of the time. 55 Wyatt summarizes his findings aptly: "Americans do believe that they believe in free expression. But, in fact, those same Americans most often believe in regulating, limiting, or suppressing expression.' 56

It follows that there is a wide difference between what media professionals believe about the rights of the media and what the public believes. Simply put, the people believe in a right to free expression, but they hold it as a personal right. They do not perceive the media to be persons exercising a personal right to free expression; rather, they see the media as an institution, like governments and churches, that have rights mostly in relation to other institutions but, in relation to the people, have only responsibilities. Thus people consistently express a belief that the press should be generally free from government interference except in cases involving legitimate governmental responsibilities (Hke national security), but they don't agree with legal protections that the press currently enjoys from libel prosecutions by individuals, nor do they condone press interference with privacy. 57

Within these bounds, the press seems to be relatively popular compared with other institutions. In a 1988 Gallup Times-Mirror survey, the "daily newspaper you are most familiar with" and "network TV news" achieved a higher percentage of "highly favorable" ratings--22 percent and 21 percent, respectively--than any other institution, including the military (17 percent), the Supreme Court (13 percent), Congress (10 percent), lawyers (7 percent), and the CIA (4 percent). 58

These polls are as interesting for what they reveal about news professionals as for what they tell us about the public. The news media involved express great concern for the safety of a democracy in a land where the people have no confidence in the information they receive, but also pronounced is a sense of professional and institutional anxiety: the media fear that the public will condone the curtailment of the traditional prerogatives of the press. Moreover, the media fear that such curtailment will come because the public fails to accept a "social-responsibility" justification for media rights. A subtext behind the construction of the questionnaires used is a fear that the public thinks of the media in the same category as automobile manufacturers and other big businesses rather than in the category of medicine, law, and the other professions or the category of Congress, the judiciary, and other public institutions. Because freedom of the press has become in practice a right for corporate entities and not for individuals, it is important that the public view the media as corporate entities of the sort that deserve special protection, instead of simply as profit-making businesses.


Conclusion

The level of violence against the press currently is as low as it's ever been. Journalists and news executives consider violence to be a rather unimportant feature of their work environment. Far more significant, judging from written responses to my survey and published remarks, is the fear of legal action, especially libel suits. In addition to being violent, Americans have always been litigious.

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