Thursday, March 23, 2017 will be the Sixth Annual First Amendment Celebration in support of The Gateway Journalism Review (GJR) successor of the St. Louis Journalism Review (SJR). The speaker will be Major Garrett, chief White House correspondent for CBS. Garrett also covered Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. Garrett graduated from the University of Missouri in 1984 with degrees in journalism and political science.
The GJR celebration will be held at the Edward Jones HQ, Manchester and Ballas Roads from 6 pm to 9:30 pm. Invitations will be mailed to past attendees and supporters of GJR. Tickets for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres are $100. Payment can be mailed to GJR/SJR, 8380 Olive Blvd, St. Louis, MO 63132. Contributions will strengthen the ability of GJR to continue excellent coverage of local, regional and national issues important to journalism and our democracy.
For information contact Dan Sullivan at <firstname.lastname@example.org> or 314-313-0858.
Newspapering was still a man’s world in the 1980s so I didn’t know what to make of my first female boss.
But a few things became obvious. She knew as much as I knew about how the city-that-works really works … and a lot more about the internal workings of the Chicago Tribune.
I was the younger by a few months, yet she had more energy, especially when making assignments. Her ideas could seem prosaic to a mid-career reporter, but she knew what had front page potential if aggressively and creatively pursued.
Most of all I remember her mastery of detail. Her election night staffing memoranda ran page after page, advising dozens of reporters and photographers where they needed to be, and by what exact minute they had to file so as to clear the copy desk in time to make our “final” edition.
Doping stories with her – the process by which reporters tell editors what they’ve got and editors tell reporters what they still need – was a game of 20 questions. But if you had the goods, she’d sell it hard at the 5 o’clock meeting where section editors offer their best stories for Page 1.
Ellen Soeteber had the goods. She moved up Tribune ranks as Metro editor, associate managing editor and deputy of the editorial page. The company sent her to South Florida to help run its newspaper there, yet none of us were surprised when later she was hired away as editor-in-chief of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It was a homecoming of sorts, Ellen having graduated from East St. Louis High … a fact that gave her “street cred” in our city room … and one that helps explain her lifelong support of minority as well as female journalists.
Ellen Soeteber died last June on the same day as the passing of former Tribune editor and publisher Jack Fuller, one of her mentors. She would have appreciated the irony … and, were she running the news desk, would have risen to the challenge from an editor’s perspective. Run the obits the same day, giving bigger play to Fuller? Nah. Best to hold the Soeteber RIP for a day and give both the measured play they deserve. She was canny that way.
How canny? Back in ’83 she walked up to my desk and asked if I’d go to an old-time saloon near Comiskey Park – Schaller’s Pump to be exact – for a color piece on what locals thought of the White Sox finally making the playoffs. I groaned and eye-rolled … but agreed. Whereupon she asked if I’d also go to Baltimore that weekend for a feature on their stadium’s neighborhood. Had I turned her down on Schallers, another reporter would have enjoyed those expense account crab cakes and playoff tickets.
Then there were all those Saturday mornings, 7 a.m. shift, chasing stories for the Sunday final. Often the big whoop was arrival around 9 a.m. of a stack of the Chicago Sun-Times “bulldog” Sunday edition. Almost always the competition bannered a Page 1 screamer about some investigation or revelation the Trib didn’t have. So Ellen always bought coffee for the copy kid who distributed those papers, and in return he or she agreed to delay delivering a copy to the office of Sunday Editor Bill Jones. She used those precious minutes to evaluate the competition’s story and outline a strategy to either “knock-down” or “recover” the S-T bombshell. I don’t think Jones, another fine editor who died too soon, ever caught on.
In such ways were trails blazed for women in the newsroom. Yet she paid a price, as all pioneers do. There were those damnable cigarettes and other nervous ticks. Of course there were. She asked herself to be twice-as-good and, more often than not, she pulled it off. Not long after Ellen moved on, one of her mentees, Anne Marie Lipinski, became the Tribune’s first female editor-in-chief.
Newspapering has its problems, sure, but thanks to Ellen and her professional sisters, it is no longer a man’s world … and much the better for it.
Author’s note: Following 27 years at the Trib, John McCarron now teachers, consults and writes on urban affairs.
Postscript: A number of Ellen’s colleagues and friends from the Trib, Sun-Sentinal and Post-Dispatch are making gifts in her memory to the Alfred Friendly Foundation, which brings aspiring third-world journalists to the U.S. to see how we do it here. Ellen was a board member and brought lots of Friendly fellows into the newsrooms she led. You can donate online at http://presspartners.org/support/individual-gifts/ or send a check to: Alfred Friendly Press Partners; 310C Reynolds Journalism Institute, Columbia, MO 65211.
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When America celebrated the 200th birthday of the Bill of Rights in 1991, no one foresaw the powerful forces that would remake it over the next quarter century.
- The communications revolution and rise of Facebook-Twitter-Google democracy
- The loss of privacy to unforeseen technology
- 11, 2001, and the growth of the national security state
- Citizens United and the flood of big money into elections
- The Wild West of a virtual public forum flooded with news, fake news and hate speech
- The nation’s fascination with guns and expansion of Second Amendment rights
- The evolving decency that ended the execution of juvenile killers
By 1991, the First Amendment had developed into a powerful shield against government abuse of outsiders, leftists, anarchists, communists, labor unions, Jehovah’s Witnesses, atheists and non-Christians.
“The Bill of Rights is a born rebel,” wrote Frank I. Cobb, a 20th century news reporter. “It reeks with sedition. In every clause it shakes its fist in the face of constituted authority… It is the one guarantee of human freedom to the American people.”
But in the past 25 years the Bill of Rights has put on a business suit. Today it increasingly protects the wealthy, corporations, conservatives, fundamentalist Christians, property owners and other moneyed interests.
“The court has put much more energy into expanding the free speech rights of politically or economically powerful speakers, while largely disdaining the First Amendment concerns of politically and economically disempowered speakers” says Gregory P. Magarian, law professor at Washington University and former Supreme Court Clerk.
In 1991, liberals worried the conservative Supreme Court would cut back on civil liberties. In 2016 many liberals fear the Supreme Court has granted too many new rights.
Liberals often find themselves calling for less-expansive rights:
- Fewer free speech rights for corporations and rich people to influence elections.
- More restrictions on campus speech in the form of trigger warnings and rules against “micro-aggressions.”
- Less religious freedom for conservative Christians to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex couple or to fill a prescription for the morning-after pill.
- Fewer rights for gun owners.
- Fewer free speech rights for workers who don’t want to pay union dues.
- Fewer property rights to block environmental regulations of beachfronts and wetlands to preserve endangered species.
By contrast, many conservatives worry that liberals’ restrictions on freedoms can leave elections in control of the big media corporations, can enforce political correctness on campus and in society, can force God-fearing pharmacists, bakers and florists to compromise deeply held religious beliefs, can take away guns from law-abiding citizens and subject property owners to extreme environmental regulations.
And then there is President-elect Donald Trump, a force of his own, who ran a campaign opposed to political correctness but who now complains about speech he finds incorrect — from burning the flag to investigative journalism and an actor’s critical speech from the stage production Hamilton. Playhouses are supposed to be “safe” spaces, Trump says, but campus rules intended to make minorities feel safe are political correctness. Trump advocates laws criminalizing flag-burning and making it easier to win libel awards from media, even though those laws would be unconstitutional violations of the First Amendment.
What follows are some of the most important changes that have occurred in the Bill of Rights in the quarter century between its 200th anniversary in 1991 and its 225th this Dec. 15.
Communications revolution — what press?
In 1991 there was no Internet, no Google, no Facebook, no Twitter, no smart phone, no Fox News, no Huffington Post, no Breitbart and no WikiLeaks. Rush Limbaugh was just starting right-wing radio rants. There were no likes or tweets or citizen journalists. The golden age of legacy journalism sailed obliviously on, like the Titanic toward an unseen iceberg. The notion that millions of tweets could overwhelm the narratives of professional journalists was unimaginable. So was the idea that a president could get elected partly on the strength of 140 character messages insulting opponents and private Americans. Or that “publisher” Julian Assange would become the purveyor of documents hacked from the Democratic Party by Russian spies. Or that thousands of “chatbots” — online robots with artificial intelligence — would post fake news across the Internet in the days before the 2016 election.
At the same time the communications revolution have transformed speech in the public space, unlimited election spending by corporations, labor unions and the wealthy have transformed political campaigns. Watergate’s lesson of “follow the money” is a distant memory. Thanks to Citizens United, corporations have a First Amendment right to spend as much money as they want on the election of a candidate and the voters don’t get to know who gave millions until after the election. Campaign spending for the two major presidential candidates exceeded $2 billion this year, more than four times that of 1992 when candidates still relied on the now defunct post-Watergate public financing system.
National security state
1991 was a decade before 9/11. No one imagined terrorists bringing down the World Trade towers and attacking the Pentagon. There was no Patriot Act. No prison at Guantanamo to circumvent due process. No drones to kill enemy combatants on foreign soil. The United States was a proud adherent of the Geneva Convention and its bans on torture. Waterboarding was something other nations did. Roundups of men from the Middle East seemed like a bad dream from another era, like the discredited roundups of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
But in the scary time after 9/11, Attorney General John Ashcroft rounded up young Middle Eastern men, triggering a legal case only now playing out before the Supreme Court where the men say they were targeted for their religion. Today’s America is frightened too. The incoming Trump administration talks about banning refugees, deporting immigrants and reinstating torture.
The thought that the National Security Agency could collect metadata on all Americans’ telephone calls was preposterous in 1991. The Global Positioning System was for the military, not consumers. A person’s location was not constantly tracked by a cell phone in the pocket. Consumers’ purchases were not constantly tracked by their online searches. And street corners weren’t under 24-hour surveillance from ubiquitous security cameras.
Only science fiction had thought of technology such as today’s Stingray system for picking up phone conversations from outside a building. No one needed a right to be forgotten. But as the sweep of the modern surveillance state began to sink in, the Supreme Court pushed back, ruling the government needed a warrant before putting a GPS device on a suspect’s car or searching a person’s cell phone.
Disappearing right of privacy
The right of privacy – a right found in parts of the Bill of Rights and in the constitutional protection of “liberty” – was under assault as the Bill of Rights turned 200. It is under assault again at 225. The Supreme Court of 25 years ago was about to hear a case threatening to read the abortion right out of the Constitution. But the court held to precedent. Not only did it reaffirm Roe v. Wade, but it later expanded that right of individual liberty to encompass same- sex marriage – an expansion almost no one would have predicted in 1991 when not a single state permitted same-sex marriage.
But the right of privacy continues to have shallow roots in the Constitution. Many conservatives say these are unenumerated rights that do not deserve constitutional protection. Replacing the late Antonin Scalia and any one of the three oldest justices with two more Scalias could end the constitutional protections for abortion and same-sex marriage.
Political correctness: equality vs. freedom
The tensions between freedom and equality – two great values of the U.S. Constitution and democracy – have intensified. In 1991 political and religious conservatives were realizing the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom and free expression could protect them against what they saw as an overbearing political correctness embodied in college speech regulations. Today, liberals and conservatives alike worry that trigger warnings, safe spaces and identity politics can stand in the way of a university’s core liberal purpose of challenging a student’s unexamined assumptions.
Last year, Melissa Click, then a communications professor at the University of Missouri, tried to block a student journalist from taking a photo of black protesters who, she said, needed safe space. Click’s attempt to impose a kind of political correctness on the photographer ran into another form of political correctness from the Missouri Legislature, which demanded her job and got it.
Nationwide, blackface and redface Halloween costumes led to an uproar at Yale, Mexican-American costumes to an apology at Louisville and the University of Oklahoma kicked out a student singing a KKK lynching song on a university bus.
More state support for religion
Since 1991, the Supreme Court has banned public school sponsored graduation prayers, prayers at the Friday night football game and the Ten Commandments on courtroom walls or courtroom monuments. But in a break from the past, the court approved state-funded vouchers for parochial school children. And, in a current Missouri case, the court may allow the state to pay for rubber playground materials for Trinity Lutheran pre-school in Columbia, despite a state constitutional provision that sets up a stricter separation between church and state than the First Amendment. The Supreme Court also opened the way for prayers by local pastors before city council meetings and state and national monuments with religious texts or symbols, such as a six-foot monument of the Ten Commandments on Texas Capitol grounds and the Mojave Memorial Cross built on public land to honor veterans.
Anyone taking the time-machine from 1991 straight to 2016 would have trouble figuring out what had happened to religious liberty. Scalia cut back constitutional protection for religious liberty in the 1990 Employment Division v. Smith decision, where Native Americans sought protection for their use of peyote in a sacramental ritual. Scalia said the state could enforce generally applicable state laws – such as those penalizing those using peyote – even if those penalized were exercising their religious freedom. With largely Democratic support, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to overturn Smith and restore a higher level of protection for religious liberty. Now conservative legislators are passing state versions of that law to enable florists and bakers to avoid serving same-sex couples based on religious belief. The Supreme Court also used the federal RFRA to recognize the religious freedom of a corporation, Hobby Lobby, to object to contraception requirements of the Affordable Care Act.
“Big data” – the computer analysis of huge data bases – didn’t exist in 1991, but now the Supreme Court protects it. In a 2011 Vermont case, the court ruled the state could not prohibit pharmaceutical companies from obtaining data on doctors’ prescription writing practices. The companies wanted the data to market their more expensive, brand-name drugs to doctors. Vermont had tried to block the release of this prescription information to protect the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship and to keep down health-care costs. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that the First Amendment keeps the state from singling out “disfavored speech by disfavored speakers” – the disfavored speech being the marketing of brand-name drugs and the disfavored speakers the pharmaceutical companies. Mark Sableman, a media lawyer at Thompson Coburn in St. Louis, says protecting big data is important to modern journalism that often is based on computer-assisted reporting that analyzes huge government databases.
Fascination with guns
In 1991, Missouri, Illinois and most Midwest states had laws against carrying concealed guns. A few years later Congress banned the manufacture of assault rifles. Now tables have turned. The federal assault rifle ban has lapsed and not a single state bans concealed guns. Faced with an insatiable appetite for guns, all states have either passed laws ending regulation of guns – such as Missouri – or adopted “must issue” laws, such as Illinois, that institutionalize concealed carry. Stand-your-ground and Castle doctrines provide legal protection for using a gun to defend oneself or property. Meanwhile, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court turned its back on precedent and for the first time recognized an individual right to own a gun to protect the home. The decision left plenty of room to regulate assault rifles and concealed guns, but pro-gun majorities in many legislatures, such as Missouri, claim gun laws take away Second Amendment rights. Although the claim is inaccurate, the gun lobby uses it effectively.
Ending juvenile death penalty
By 1991, most states had passed a new generation of death penalty laws, responding to a 1970s decision that found traditional laws arbitrary and capricious. Twenty-two juveniles were executed between 1985 and 2003. Only Iran executed more young people. Christopher Simmons awaited execution in Missouri for murdering Shirley Crook by tying her to a chair and throwing her into the Meramec River. But in the Simmons case the Missouri Supreme Court led the movement to end execution of murderers 17 and younger. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, finding that the nation’s and world’s evolving standards of decency no longer permitted executing teens because their brains still were developing. Capital punishment for juveniles was therefore deemed cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Life imprisonment without parole also violated this standard of decency.
Meanwhile, in Illinois, the Innocence Project, run by former Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess, uncovered more than a dozen cases of wrongful convictions in murder cases. Gov. George Ryan ended executions. Nationally, the number of executions, which had increased to almost 100 a year by the end of the 20th century, has dropped almost every year; 28 people were executed in 2015 and 18 this year through mid-November.
What’s liberal and what’s conservative?
Taken together, the changes over the past 25 years have mostly broadened and strengthened the Bill of Rights and at the same time protected new conservative causes.
The Earl Warren court of the 50s and 60s protected communists, civil rights protesters, the Ku Klux Klan, a young man wearing a “Fuck the draft” jacket in a courthouse. It protected the media from President Nixon’s attempt to stop the presses printing the Pentagon Papers. And New York Times v. Sullivan protected the northern media from the attempts of southern politicians to bankrupt them for aggressive reporting of the Civil Rights Movement.
During the Rehnquist court the speech of outsiders continued to flourish with protection of flag-burning, Margaret Gilleo’s anti-war sign in the window of her Ladue home and the ribald parody that Hustler magazine printed of the Rev. Jerry Falwell having sex “for the first time” with his mother in an outhouse. But there were signs of change in rulings protecting religious majorities and rejecting hate crime laws.
In the Roberts era, the winners in First Amendment cases have more often been established interests. People who used to be insiders are sometimes on the outs with liberal political majorities – corporations making political expenditures, pharmaceutical firms seeking to use big data for marketing efforts, corporations such as Hobby Lobby objecting on religious grounds to Obamacare rules on contraceptives. Labor unions, already threatened by expansion of right to work laws, now are on the brink of losing the power to charge union dues to workers who say union activities violate their free speech rights.
Whereas the great free speech decisions of the 60s and 70s were sparked by the court’s liberal justices, its conservative justices now are often more likely to support First Amendment claims – such as Citizens United, where the five justices in the majority were the most conservative five.
One factor in the change was the growth of conservative legal advocacy. The Federalist Society, Pacific Legal Foundation, Liberty Counsel and Center for Individual Rights all took a page from the successes of the ACLU, NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Ralph Nader. The ACLU, LDF, and Nader’s groups had won victories for blacks, consumers and students who didn’t want to be forced to pray in school. The new conservative legal groups began winning for white students who felt disadvantaged by affirmative action, Christian students who wanted to meet in campus buildings and property owners fighting environmental regulations that interfered with their property.
Roger Goldman, a professor at Saint Louis University Law School, wonders whether today’s conservative justices would have supported the free speech decisions of half a century ago. “I’m wondering if Roberts and the conservatives would have joined the liberals in the old First Amendment cases involving communists, loyalty oaths, obscenity, etc.,” he wrote in an email. “In other words, (I’m wondering whether) the new conservatives disagree with the old conservatives of the 40s thru the 90s.”
Professor Joel Goldstein, also at Saint Louis University, raises the opposite question. Justice Louis Brandeis was one of the great architects of First Amendment law in the 1920s, but Goldstein says Brandeis might have dissented from a decision giving First Amendment protection to the Rev. Fred Phelps who picketed the Catholic funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, killed in action in Iraq.
Phelps’ Westboro Church says God is punishing the United States for homosexuality. The signs the church members carried read: “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” “America is Doomed,” “Don’t Pray for the USA,” “Thank God for IEDs,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Pope in Hell,” “Priests Rape Boys,” “God Hates Fags,” “You’re Going to Hell” and “God Hates You.”
Roberts likened his decision to free-speech precedents of the past, including the flag-burning decision, the New York Times v. Sullivan libel decision and Cohen v. California permitting a war protester to wear into a courthouse a jacket with the words “Fuck the Draft.”
In New York Times v. Sullivan, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote the First Amendment required enough breathing space to allow news organizations to make mistakes about public officials. Chief Justice Roberts said that Westboro protesters were addressing issues of public concern and needed breathing space as well.
Just as the court had once upheld a parody of the Rev. Falwell’s “first time”with his mother in an outhouse, Roberts said that the Westboro protesters hyperbole was protected.
But Goldstein doubts Brandeis would have gone along. “Brandeis wrote one of the most powerful justifications of free speech…,” Goldstein said, “yet also believed in a right to privacy… Although I am always skeptical of claims regarding how someone who has been dead for nearly 70 years would have reacted to contemporary circumstances, it’s hard for me to believe Brandeis would have thought a funeral was a constitutionally protected venue for speech attacking the decedent.
“…If we as a society recognize a right to privacy that goes beyond spatial confines, I would think that a funeral would rank at or near the top of experiences where the claims would be strongest. Surely someone who is grieving the loss of and burying a loved one in engaged in one of the most poignant of life’s experiences….”
Alito v Lessig
Today the calls for constitutional amendments or constitutional conventions are as likely to come from liberals as conservatives.
Some liberal groups would like to see constitutional amendments that protect positive rights, such as the right to an education, health care and housing. The current Bill of Rights protects negative rights – blocking government abuses of the people.
Some conservative groups would like amendments to ban burning the American flag, redefine citizenship, require a balanced budget and protect victims of crime.
One amendment that has gotten quite a bit of attention is advanced by Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig and liberal groups for overturning Citizens United by enabling Congress to regulate political spending and contributions. Forty senators have signed on to the amendment.
Justice Samuel Alito, one of the leading conservatives on the court, made it clear in a speech to the conservative Federalist Society after Trump’s election, that he and other conservatives oppose that amendment and others that would undo the conservative handiwork of the past 25 years that expanded the First and Second amendments.
“More than 40 senators have proposed an amendment to the First Amendment, which in itself is an important development,” Alito said. “And what would that amendment do? It would have the effect of granting greater free speech rights to an elite group, those who control the media, than to everybody else.”
Alito also worried that a more liberal court could overturn the 2008 Heller decision recognizing an individual’s right to own a gun. He called that opinion “perhaps Justice Scalia’s most important majority opinion.”
Alito mocked the University of California’s suggestion that the term “melting pot” was a micro-aggression offending minorities. He questioned campus speech codes as inconsistent with a famous line from Justice Robert Jackson’s opinion in 1943 holding that students who were Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t have to salute the flag because of their belief it was a graven image.
Jackson wrote then, “If there his a fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion.”
Alito added, “On college campuses, both public and private, a new orthodoxy rules. Suppose a student were to test Justice Jackson’s proposition today by wearing an article of attire supporting a political candidate who was unpopular among students and professors by proclaiming that the United States is a great and a good country and by expressing certain traditional religious beliefs.
“How would that go over?”
In the passionate pleadings of both left and right there is a common thread: Something is wrong with our democracy, whether you call it the Facebook Democracy, the Post-Fact Democracy, the Digital Democracy, the Virtual Democracy, the Surveillance State or the Politically Correct Democracy. The great task of the 21st century is adapting democracy to the rapid expansion of freedoms, the flood of information and disinformation and the new gadgets of communication that are just as likely to invade privacy as to connect us to the rest of the world.
The press is losing its power, its credibility and its way.
As the Bill of Rights turns 225, the one business it protects, the press, is suffering an identity crisis.
Who is a journalist? Is Julian Assange a publisher? By democratizing news does the Internet serve democracy or confuse it? By serving as a world wide communications system does the web draw us together or fracture us into warring factions? Should Facebook and other online social media take down false news or hate speech or alt-right advocacy or incitement against police?
Why didn’t voters heed the investigations and fact-checks of Donald Trump? Does adherence to journalistic neutrality obscure the truth in false equivalencies? Is Trump, with his morning tweets, playing the press by setting the news agenda? Should the press publish WikiLeaks’ stolen emails, even if it is effectively serving as an arm of Russian intelligence? How can professional journalists regain trust and distinguish their work from the fake news exploding on the Internet?
A 25 year fade
In 1991, on the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, the press was at the height of its power and influence although people’s confidence was low.
Now, 25 years later, the power and influence of the mainstream media have waned and the people’s trust has fallen even more precipitously. Just after Watergate, 72 percent of Americans had confidence in the press, according to Gallup. The number dropped to 55 percent in 1991. Now it’s 32 percent with only 26 percent of those under 50 saying they have confidence.
A majority of the youngest citizens, Millennials and Gen Xers, report getting most of their news about politics and government from Facebook, which isn’t a news organization.
The mainstream media have themselves to blame in part for the lost credibility. Jason Blair invented stories at The New York Times. Judith Miller reported for the Times on weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. Leading news organizations all but convicted the nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee of espionage and Steven Hatfill of sending anthrax to Capitol Hill. Neither accusation was true.
Meanwhile the legacy media were sidetracked by the biggest revolution in communications technology since Guttenberg’s movable press half a millennium ago. Science put magical devices in everyone’s pocket that permitted instantaneous communication.
The list of new communications devices, institutions and communication terms is mind-numbing – citizen journalist, smartphone, GPS, social media, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Periscope, livestream, tweet, aggregate, link, likes, impressions, shares, comments, friends, followers, page views, click bait, fake news, big data, Drudge, Breitbart, alt-right, Huffington Post, Fox, MSNBC, chatbots, WikiLeaks, Google Earth, Google Street View, virtual reality, photoshop, face recognition software.
As news media platforms explode, the press is having a nervous breakdown that echoes through the public space and challenges democratic processes. The word – press – is itself an anachronism as printing presses close across the country.
The number of reporters in newsrooms has declined by 20,000 in the past decade. That is a decline of about 40 percent, from 54,000 to 33,000. With each buyout and layoff, news organizations lose the muscle to serve as watchdogs.
More than 120 daily newspapers have closed since 2004 and print advertising is falling off a cliff. It was down 8 percent last year nationally, according to a Pew study, with print advertising at The New York Times down double digits.
But the crisis runs deeper than closed newspapers and empty newsroom desks.
Christiana Amanpour, the CNN foreign correspondent, said a month after the presidential election that journalists face an existential crisis. She said:
“We have to accept that we’ve had our lunch handed to us by the very same social media that we’ve so slavishly been devoted to.
“The winning candidate (Trump) did a savvy end run around us and used it to go straight to the people. Combined with the most incredible development ever–the tsunami of fake news sites–aka lies–that somehow people could not, would not, recognize, fact check, or disregard.
“…Facebook needs to step up…I feel that we face an existential crisis, a threat to the very relevance and usefulness of our profession…”
“In the same way, politics has been driven into poisonous partisan and paralyzing corners…that same dynamic has infected powerful segments of the American media…Journalism itself has become weaponized. We have to stop it.”
A decade ago, Cass Sunstein, a First Amendment expert, foresaw potential dangers ahead. “As a result of the Internet, we live increasingly in an era of enclaves and niches—much of it voluntary, much of it produced by those who think they know, and often do know, what we’re likely to like,” Sunstein said in 2007. “If people are sorted into enclaves and niches, what will happen to their views? What are the eventual effects on democracy?”
Powerful democratizing force
Is Amanpour right or is this handwringing by overwrought liberal reporters who wouldn’t see a crisis if Hillary Clinton had won?
In many ways the Internet and social media are miracles of science and engineering. They are powerful democratizing forces that allow outsiders to go over the heads of media elites and get their story out to the country and world.
The outsiders might be the Black Lives Matter protesters alerting the nation and the world to police abuse of African-American men. Or they might be conspiracy theorists who think 911 was a U.S. orchestrated intelligence operation or that the massacre of first graders at Sandy Hook was a fictional Hollywood production designed to take away people’s guns.
Trump used Twitter in very much the same way as Black Lives Matter, getting information to the masses by bypassing or hijacking traditional media.
It may be that the problem with 2016 election coverage was less the Internet and more the habitual failings of the mainstream press.
Thomas Patterson, in a report for the Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, put his finger on the high level of negativity in the press coverage of both Trump and Clinton. The report showed that only about 10 percent of the presidential election coverage involved policy; about 60 percent focused on the horse race or controversies.
Patterson said, “an incessant stream of criticism has a corrosive effect. It needlessly erodes trust in political leaders and institutions and undermines confidence in government and policy.”
The 2016 presidential election campaign featured an unprecedented amount of fake news online. Both liberals and conservatives were guilty, although Buzzfeed found that hyper-conservative sites had a higher percentage of false or mostly false stories than hyper-liberal ones.
Buzzfeed also found that the entirely false news stories from fake news sites got more attention on Facebook than the top real stories.
“In the final three months of the US presidential campaign,” it concluded, “the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others,”
Among the fake stories getting the most traction were those claiming the pope endorsed Trump, Clinton sold weapons to ISIS and that an FBI agent investigating Clinton’s emails had been found dead. One of the fake stories about Trump claimed the “surgeon general of the US warned that drinking every time Trump lied during the first presidential debate could result in acute alcohol poisoning.”
The gunfire at the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington,D.C. on Dec. 4, 2016 illustrates how fake Internet news, entangled with politics, can have dangerous consequences. The Washington Post retraced the origins of the false story:
In late October and November, more than one million tweets contained the twitter handle “pizzagate.” It referred to an Internet conspiracy that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child sex ring operating out of the basement of a popular Washington, D.C. pizza place called Comet ping pong. (The restaurant had ping pong tables but no basement.)
Alex Jones, the right-wing conspiracy theorist and Trump supporter, jumped into the controversy with a YouTube video stating Hillary Clinton was “involved in a child sex ring” and had “personally murdered, chopped up and raped” children. The video was viewed 427,000 times.
The Friday before the election, the owner of Comet pizza got streams of comments on his Instagram calling him a pedophile. An online conversation on 4Chan and Reddit claimed a child sex operation was being run out of the restaurant with children held in the basement. Nearby shops also began getting threats.
The hashtag #pizzagate was retweeted hundreds or thousands of times each day from places like the Czech Republic, Vietnam and Cyprus. Bots – programs designed to promote tweets – composed many of the retweets.
On Nov. 16, Jack Posobiec, former Naval Reserve intelligence officer involved in a pro-Trump organization, went to Comet to investigate. He walked into a back room where a child’s birthday party was underway and started to livestream it to a worldwide audience on the Periscope app. He didn’t have the family’s permission and the restaurant forced him to leave.
He explained: “People have lost faith with government and the mainstream media being any real authority…If I can do something with Periscope and show what I’m seeing with my own two eyes, that’s helpful.”
On Sunday, Dec. 4, Edgar Maddison Welch decided to self-investigate. He walked into the restaurant with an assault rifle and handgun looking for the children and tunnels. After about 45 minutes, firing the gun but finding nothing, he surrendered.
The Post concluded that Pizzagate was “possible only because science has produced the most powerful tools ever invented to find and disseminate information.”
The First Amendment
The classic liberal response to false and hateful speech is more speech. As Justice Louis Brandeis put it in 1927, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
Critics have called upon Facebook to exercise greater editorial control, now that it has become the world’s most influential publisher. And there are indications that it is moving that direction. Facebook has appointed a task force to look into the fake news and Google will bar fake news sites from its AdSense advertising program, cutting off revenue.
But Nicholas Lemann of The New Yorker doesn’t think Facebook is up to the task. ‘It’s a sign of our anti-government times that the solution proposed most often is that Facebook should regulate it. Think about what that means: one relatively new private company, which isn’t in journalism, has become the dominant provider of journalism to the public, and the only way people can think of to address what they see as a terrifying crisis in politics and public life is to ask the company’s billionaire C.E.O. to fix it.’
Lemann has different idea: “If people really think that something should be done about the fake-news problem, they should be thinking about government as the institution to do it.”
That, however, runs smack into the First Amendment. The Supreme Court provides the Internet the same high level of protection as a newspaper. Any government action to sort out and punish fake or misleading news would most likely be unconstitutional.
On one thing Lemann is right. This problem of fake news is not new. Joseph Pulitzer saw the danger more than a century ago when he issued this warning about a world without well-educated journalists:
“Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together,” Pulitzer wrote. “An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.”
Arthur Miller, the playwright, put it more colloquially. “A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.”
Twenty-five years from now, when the Bill of Rights celebrates its 250th birthday, there probably won’t be daily papers delivered on people’s lawns. But the electronic and digital media that remain need to find a way to help the nation talk to itself again.
Missouri Supreme Court Judge Richard B. Teitelman was a friend of equal justice, a friend of the Bill of Rights and a friend of the journalism review. He was a friend of mine and many others his life touched. This issue celebrating the 225th the Bill of Rights is dedicated to Judge Rick who died last month.
If you have a mental image of a judge in your mind, forget it. Judge Teitelman was nothing like any other judge.
Michael Wolff, the outgoing dean of the Saint Louis University Law School and a former colleague of Teitelman’s on the court, described his friend this way in a column for the Post-Dispatch:
“Most mornings before a Missouri Supreme Court session was to begin, Judge Richard B. “Rick” Teitelman, a large disheveled man with big thick glasses and a smile to match, would appear in the courtroom and go around shaking hands making everyone feel welcome. Unusual for a supreme court judge, but it was perfectly in character for one of the most remarkable men I have ever known.”
If Teitelman knew that the wife or parents of one of the lawyers arguing a case was in the courtroom, he’d make special effort to say nice things about the argument, said Wolff.
Teitelman was the first Jewish judge on the Missouri Supreme Court and the first who was legally blind.
After graduating from Washington University Law School in 1973, Teitelman had to get a reader to take the bar. After passing he couldn’t get a job because of his blindness so he hung up his shingle outside his one-room apartment. Sometimes he took a bus to work.
His representation of farm workers during the grape boycott got the attention of Legal Services where he went to work. By 1980 he was executive director. There he inaugurated the Justice For All ball to raise money for legal services.
One reason Teitelman worked the room was to supplement his eyesight and figure out who was present. But Teitelman was genuinely interested in people.
A friend of his, emeritus professor Roger Goldman at Saint Louis University Law School, remembers a funny story. “He never missed an opportunity to talk to someone,” Goldman recalled. “Once I was walking on the SLU campus and I spotted Rick in conversation. When I got closer he was talking to the Billiken Buddha like sculpture! When I told him, he let out a big laugh and asked how I was doing.”
Teitelman dedicated his life to serious causes but he did not take himself too seriously.
Attorney David Camp clerked for Teitelman a decade ago. That job included driving him to Jefferson City for oral arguments. One day Teitelman asked him to start at 5 a.m. so they could stop by a little store in north St. Louis to pick up an order of sardines. The sardines were in a styrofoam container with a flimsy plastic lid. Teitelman told Camp is was “the good stuff. It’ll be my emergency stash.”
On Thursday after a week of oral arguments, the sardines were still there. “We load up my car and take off,” Camp recalls. “There, on my dash, he has placed the styrofoam container of 3-day-old unrefrigerated sardines. He always wanted me to drive as fast as possible. I would say ‘Rick, you’re blind, how can you even tell?’ He would say ‘I can hear cars that pass us, let’s go!’
“So, I’m weaving in and out, trying to pick up the pace, and Rick is pleased. He decides it’s time to eat, and opens the sardines container. Rick said ‘these are better with age’ and grinned at me. Just then, a truck cut me off and I hit the brakes, causing the sardines, and the sardine oil, to slosh just enough to escape the meager confines of the styrofoam container.”
After a weekend of trying to clean his car, Camp sold it. The next Monday Camp picked him up in another car. Teitelman was pleased. The new seat was more comfortable.
Teitelman often told the story on himself. “He said he liked the story because it showed how tenacious he was in finishing something, and in not being wasteful, and that his clerks were good at problem-solving.”
Another time Camp ran into Teitelman outside a suburban movie theater. Teitelman loved movies, watching from the front row. Camp asked if the judge would like to see a movie with him. Teitelman said he couldn’t. The theater had kicked him out thinking he was a vagrant because he had fallen asleep.
“Rick never did pull out his badge or explain his stature in such situations,” Camp recalled in an email. “I think he was Chief Justice at the time. He proposed that we go for a bite to eat instead – he always knew of a place. We did, and after our meal, he looked at me with a serious expression, leaning over so as not to be overheard: ‘we should go back to the theater now and try to get in, they just had a shift change!’”
At times, when clerks were having trouble finding precedent to back up an argument, Teitelman would tell them the story of a man he had represented as a young lawyer. The man had been arrested for shoplifting one can of dog food.
“The man had been caught in the act.” recalled Camp. “What was the defense? Well, that it was dog food, and that was to be his dinner. The man had used all his food stamps to feed his family, and gone to the grocery store to look for a dented dog food can, for his meal. He had a can opener in his pocket, and hoped to eat it before returning home to avoid the shame. He thought the store couldn’t sell the dented cans, and it wouldn’t do them harm. Upon hearing the full story, the prosecutor decided to drop the case.
“The lesson: always look at the whole story, the context, and how people are affected by the law. Rick believed the law must be formed to protect fundamental values of human decency and dignity.”
Teitelman reflected those values in important court decisions.
– The evolving standard of decency protected by the Eighth Amendment meant that juvenile murderers should not be executed, the Missouri Supreme Court decided. That decision paved the way for the U.S. Supreme Court ruling ending juvenile executions.
– The right to a jury trial, protected in the Missouri Constitution, meant that the legislature couldn’t cap awards for pain and suffering in medical malpractice cases.
– Manifest injustice was the reason to overturn the murder conviction of death row inmate Joseph Amrine. Amrine had been convicted in a fair trial of killing another inmate but all of the witness later recanted. The state argued the execution should go forward because the trial was fair. Teitelman wrote, “It is difficult to imagine a more manifestly unjust and unconstitutional result than permitting the execution of an innocent person.”
– The long history of civil rights progress – first desegregating schools, then striking down laws against interracial marriage and then outlawing sex discrimination – justified survivor benefits to the same-sex partner of Missouri Highway Patrolman Corporal Dennis Engelhard, killed in the line of duty.
“With the benefit of hindsight, the various decisions extending the guarantee of equal protection to racial minorities and women, though intensely controversial at the time, now seem obvious to a vast majority of Americans,” wrote Teitleman. “Now that (they)…. are woven firmly into the fabric of constitutional law, this question remains: Why did it take so long?”
Teitelman wrote that passage in a dissent in 2013 because the majority of the court was not ready to take on Missouri’s ban on same-sex marriage. He was far-sighted. The U.S. Supreme recognized two years later that it had taken too long.
Pulling from some of the most interesting journalism classes offered in programs in the Midwest, these courses would make for a wonderful year for any college journalism student. These are actual course descriptions in the college catalogues.
Will Write for Food (and Wine): Focuses on food and wine writing in current U.S. culture. Come ready to create mouthwatering narrative and actively seek publishing your finished work. An emphasis will be placed on class participation and written critiques of peer-reviewed articles in class. University of Missouri
Digital Games, Sims and Apps: Storytelling, Play and Commerce: Introduction to academic study of video games, computer simulations/mobile game applications. Digital games as technology, mass communication industry, cultural form/set of design practices. University of Minnesota
Sex in the Media: Explores the role and portrayal of sex and sexuality in media and examines in detail the potential social and psychological effects of exposure to sexual content in the media. Indiana University
The Googlization of America: Led by Google, technology companies are taking a more central role in the American media landscape every day. In this course, students learn how Google and its competitors are continuing to change journalism, the media business and U.S. culture. Northwestern University
Sports and Electronic Media: Examines the practical, social, and economic relationships between two major areas of U.S. popular culture — the electronic media and sports. Combines aspects of announcing, production, sales and marketing, history, and policy. Ball State University
Arab Spring in Context: Media, Religion, and Geopolitics: Protest movements that started in Tunisia in 2011 and swept across North Africa and the Middle East transforming Arab and Islamic societies in radically different ways; function of social media, satellite television, communication technology; influence of religious leaders and groups on some protest outcomes; impact of wealth and geopolitics on social fabric of Islamic societies within and outside Arab countries. University of Iowa
Mass Communication and Political Behavior: Interrelationships of news media, political campaigning and the electorate. Considers the impact of media coverage and persuasive appeals on image and issue voting, political participation and socialization. University of Wisconsin
Outdoor/Nature Journalism: This course has a three-fold purpose: to acquaint new journalists and writers with the best works of those who have found inspiration for their prose from the outdoors; to familiarize student writers with journalism about nature sites in the Missouri and Midwest region; to encourage developing outdoor/nature writers to experiment with expository and advocacy journalism. Webster University
Critical Analysis of Media: Commercial mass media and alternative press in a global context; the ways media reinforce or challenge dominant or non-dominant paradigms. Class, gender, race, disability. Media investigation skills basic to democracy. St. Cloud University
Mass Media and the American Family: The impact of the mass media on family communication patterns, familial value structures, development of children, and orientation to news media. Examination of news, advertising, and entertainment content from educational, cultural and economic perspectives. Emphasis on empirical social science research which examines relationships between media and families. Marquette University
If some high school student asked my advice about choosing a college journalism program, I of course would suggest the obvious criteria.
Classes offered. Majors available. Out-of-the-classroom opportunities to engage in journalism. Reputation. State of its technology.
After writing a story about the Class of 2020 for this issue of Gateway Journalism Review, I now would give them a question to ask their potential schools: What is your response when asked to discuss your school for a media magazine?
If the answers fall anywhere close to what I received in trying to do the story, my advice would be to move along and don’t look back.
We’re too busy. The semester just started. I can’t get anyone interested in talking to you. Not interested. We don’t have any information about the freshman class yet.
And the nominee for my favorite: No one in our department has 15 minutes to talk or answer questions on email about our program.
But maybe I am being too harsh. At least those people responded, however negative. Of the 23 inquiries made that turned me down, 10 did so by ignoring the request altogether. I hope these places do not preach what they practice. But instead, they are so busy and caught up in teaching today’s journalists that they cannot look up from their lecture lecterns to talk about themselves.
Actually, I don’t hope it, because I know it’s not true. What might be closer to the truth is that journalism schools have joined the ongoing parade of ignoring the media because they are afraid we won’t tell the story exactly the way they want. But keep doing that and here’s what the story might be in 20 years: Those schools will no longer exist.
40, 30, even 20 years ago, journalism students learned the same standards of the trade: writing, reporting, editing. Not much variation there; where you went to college served more as a door-opener after graduation than learning secrets not taught elsewhere. Students at Missouri and Northwestern and Columbia and Newhouse and Stanford learned the five W’s the same as did students at colleges with much smaller departments.
Now, as journalism continues to find new ways to tell a story, the five W’s and how have been reclassified. They’re now called the foundation upon which sexier and more cutting-edge journalism is taught.
Some schools are building impressive structures on those foundations. They have successfully blended the classic with what is trending. To be a student at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism facing the dilemma of whether to write for the award-winning Columbia Missourian or join the convergence Global Journalist show to cover world news and challenges to freedom of the press.
Or to be taking classes at Indiana University’s Media School, in Franklin Hall, built in 1907. But thanks to its $21 million renovation over the past two years, the upgraded facility gives students tools that rank with those of any professional newsroom.
Journalism schools now serve as the farm team for the professional ranks. No longer will fresh-out-of-college journalists have the time, or an employer willing to spend that time, to train them over a few years. Hit the ground running or don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Successful journalism programs will teach students to jump right in, and also to have the skills and confidence to lead the way for the next four decades. The past 30 years already have shown that those who wouldn’t/couldn’t embrace the Internet and its ways to tell a story did not survive.
The same can be said about journalism schools. Because if you won’t tell your story, who will?