Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Getting It Right

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Getting It Right

Article excerpt


Balancing threats posed by those outside, and inside, our ranks

In his speech to congress after Americans experienced deadly terrorism firsthand, President Bush said this "attack on freedom" means "freedom and fear are at war." On the Fourth of July, 1917, when the nation was engaged in World War I against a much more visible enemy, a New York Times editorial declared that, in wartime, "good citizens willingly submit" to government restrictions on our liberties that "are essential to the national existence and welfare."

This Sept. 25, the New York Post, in an editorial, warned, "From now on, Americans -- all Americans -- are going to look at a lot of things in a very different way ... like our commitment to ... virtually unfettered personal freedoms ... things will never fully be the same again.

As reported in the Oct. 1 issue of E&P, Tom Gutting, city editor and columnist at the Texas City (Texas) Sun, was fired in September for writing that, on the day of the terrorist attacks, "the president was flying around the country like a scared child." Also fired about the same time was Dan Guthrie, whose column in the Daily Courier in Grants Pass, Ore., contended the president "skedaddled" in the wake of the attacks. In both cases, publishers appeared to be responding to furious reader reaction to criticism of the commander in chief in time of war. Fear had conquered freedom of the press.

James Madison, who wrote the First Amendment, knew that freedom of speech and of the press, however guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, could become fragile because, as he wrote to Thomas Jefferson: "Wherever the real power in a government lies, there is the danger of oppression. In our governments, the real power lies in the majority of the community."

Other newspapers have rejected self-censorship. In a Sept. 29 editorial, "Free speech in wartime," The Washington Post, citing the summary dismissals of the columnists in Texas and Oregon who were not afraid of freedom, reminded us that newspapers and other forums "will be judged in time by how robustly they resist a climate of intolerance. ... It is America's strength to encourage contrarian viewpoints and tolerate distasteful remarks, especially when political discourse matters."

As this war of indeterminate length against often-invisible enemies with a worldwide reach continues, fear will rise in this nation. Accompanying it will be popular condemnation of those who "support" the terrorists by criticizing government incursions on freedoms to secure our very lives.

To realize how great this pressure from "the majority of the community" can be, it's important for journalists -- particularly editors and publishers -- to keep in mind the results of the "State of the First Amendment 2001" survey, released by the First Amendment Center this July Fourth. …

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