Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Getting It Right

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Getting It Right

Article excerpt

MURDERING THE FIRST

Press freedom gets slaughtered in First Amendment Center survey

Four newspapers -- the Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, The Ann Arbor (Mich.) News, and the alternative weekly Metro Times in Detroit - - were among the plaintiffs in the Aug. 26 landmark decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the Bush administration's closing of hundreds of deportation hearings was unconstitutional.

Written by Judge Damon J. Keith, the ruling, as The New York Times noted, was marked by "a warm embrace of news organizations not seen in most courts since the Vietnam and Watergate eras."

Most widely quoted was the line: "Democracies die behind closed doors." But the decision also emphasized, "The only safeguard on this extraordinary government power is the public, deputizing the press as the guardians of their liberty. An informed public is the most potent of all restraints on government ... the First Amendment, through a free press, protects the people's right to know that their government acts fairly, lawfully, and accurately."

However, according to the First Amendment Center's State of the First Amendment 2002, a survey conducted with the University of Connecticut's Center for Survey Research & Analysis, much of the public does not go along with this warm embrace of the press.

In the five years of the annual survey, said Kenneth A. Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, this is the first time "almost half of those surveyed said that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. About 49% said the First Amendment gives us too much freedom, up from 39% last year and 22% in 2000."

In a finding that will particularly interest and, I hope, alarm readers of E&P, Paulson said: "The least popular First Amendment right is freedom of the press -- 42% of respondents said the press in America has too much freedom to do what it wants, roughly the same level as last year." Moreover, "Roughly half of those surveyed said the American press has been too aggressive in asking government officials for information about the war on terrorism."

This isn't as bleak as it seems. About 40% said they have "too little access to information about the war on terrorism, compared with 16% who said there's too much." And, agreeing with a growing number of both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, "48% said there's too little access to government records, compared to 8% who said there's too much."

Still, it's clear that many Americans do not feel that they have deputized the press as guardians of their liberty. …

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