That Pesky First Amendment Scores Again! annieasksyou…
I am often critical of the mainstream media, whom I find too insensitive to the fragility of our democracy in their determination to present “both sides” of issues that often don’t have two sides.
For example, I’m more than frustrated with much of the coverage of the House Republicans’ willingness to throw our economy over the cliff if Biden doesn’t accept the demands of their most radical, irresponsible members.
Instead of focusing on the dangerous Republican behavior, reporters are asking: “Why doesn’t Biden just sit down with Kevin McCarthy and reach a deal?”
By a vote of 217-215, the House Republicans passed a dreadful bill, which McCarthy promised his most far right members would be the floor to any negotiations, leaving no room for a deal they knew would be unacceptable to the President and the Senate.
Oh, and another example of media irresponsibility is the incomprehensible CNN Town Hall to provide the Felon-Getting-Warmer with easy access to New Hampshire’s voters. I guess, in the words of Rupert Murdoch, who surely knows from experience, “It’s all about the green.”
But I have another reason for writing now. Despite these concerns—and my reservations about the commingling of the President, et al, with the press—I like to watch the White House Correspondents’ Association (WCHA) dinner, which was televised Sunday night.
Note: President Biden’s response to questions about his age is often “Watch me!” If you’d like to watch him in action, funny, impish, and lively, you can do so here.
He was especially funny talking about his age, beginning with his affirmation:
“I believe in the First Amendment, and not just because my good friend Jimmy
Madison wrote it…”
Good writers; excellent delivery.
Biden was impassioned about one important aspect of the WHCA dinner: it reminds us what a dangerous profession journalism can be. He and others talked about Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter who is now sitting in a Russian prison on phony charges of espionage.
Interestingly, Gershkovich’s parents are Russian emigres, and the President quoted Gershkovich’s mother Ella, who said:
“One of the American qualities that we have absorbed is optimism. That’s where we
stand right now.”
He also spoke about the other American journalists his administration is working to free, including Austin Tice, who’s been held in Syria for nearly eleven years, as well as unnamed others in various parts of the globe,
“A free and fearless press—that’s what we honor. You make it possible for ordinary citizens to question authority and yes, even laugh at authority—without fear of threat
Roy Wood, Jr., the comedian who headlined the show with the President, also told the journalists in attendance that
“…the work you do is important. It’s dangerous. My father was a reporter on the front
lines with Black platoons in Vietnam. He was in the South African Soweto riots. He
covered that. The civil war in Rhodesia, which we know today as Zimbabwe.”
When Wood’s dad returned home, he founded the National Black Network “because he wanted to tell Black stories.”
Wood cast light as well on the economic perils journalists are facing—and the impact of this issue, which I think is insufficiently reported–on what the public learns.
Most national stories, he pointed out,
“at some point were first a local story. And these stories were championed by reporters
[working for publications] that many of them have now folded.
“And if we can’t figure out a way to pay local reporters, then as a country we’re only left
with that many more blind spots to where the bull is happening.”
He was speaking simultaneously about two audiences, it seemed to me: the specific stories urgently needed to uncover injustices to Black Americans, and the even larger stories.
In one of the latter, Wood’s very funny and clever riff on Justice Clarence Thomas reminded me of America’s debt to the Pro Publica reporters whose documentation of Thomas’s excesses seems to have at last spotlighted the corruption enough to move the Senate to investigate.
But how many people have access to this information?
“People can’t afford journalism stuck behind a paywall. Can’t afford food. Can’t afford an education. They damn sure can’t afford to pay for the truth.”
He acknowledged to his audience,
“…you all can’t afford to find the truth for free. Good journalism costs. That’s the truth of the matter. Good journalism costs the people, but it also costs the journalists. You hear about all these newsrooms getting cuts. We’re cutting people; we’re cutting budgets.
“But you never hear about the multi-million dollar executives reducing their salaries within these organizations.(Emphases mine throughout)
“Now, how do we fix this? I don’t know. I’m a comedian; I’m just up here. It’s not my job to have the solution. That’s on y’all.
But he reiterated that reporting is very important and “we have to defend the journalists.”
Historian Heather Cox Richardson was a guest at the dinner, and she subsequently gave the background for the WHCA’s formation. I’ve excerpted just part of her very interesting overview.
“The power to control what citizens can publish about the government
would give leaders the power to destroy democracy.
“A free press is imperative to keep people informed about what leaders are doing. Lose
it, and those in power can do whatever they wish without accountability.
“While at first the reporters simply wanted access to the president, as the WHCA
became an established force it came to work for transparency more generally,
recognizing that journalists are the main eyes and voice of the people. It now protects
press passes for journalists who regularly cover the White House and assigns seats in
the briefing room. It also funds scholarships for aspiring journalists and gives
journalism awards; the annual dinner is their main fundraising event.
“In the modern era there is plenty of criticism over the glitzy dinner and what seems
too much chumminess between journalists and lawmakers.
“But the demonstration that the government cannot censor the press is
valuable. For the four years of the past administration, the president
refused to attend the dinner and barred his staff and other officials from
“The same president called the press the ‘enemy of the people,’
encouraging his supporters to attack reporters. Angry at negative stories
about him from Voice of America, Trump replaced the independent editor
of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA, with Michael
Pack, a close ally of Trump strategist Steve Bannon. Pack set out to turn
the channel into a pro-Trump mouthpiece. U.S. District Judge Beryl
Howell later concluded that Pack’s firing, disciplining, and investigating
of journalists who didn’t toe the line violated the First Amendment.
The Dominion lawsuit against Fox, and those that will follow, have brought new concerns to the fore, as some of the Supreme Court justices have expressed the desire to reexamine New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan, the bedrock case in support of freedom of the press.
As with every other aspect of our democracy, we’re learning, we must continue working to ensure the survival of the fundamentals.
Here’s Heather Cox Richardson’s hopeful conclusion:
“The dance between the government and the press is intricate and full of missteps, but
last night, at an event where journalists wore pins that read, ‘I stand with Evan,’ this historian
found the public reminder that the president must answer to journalists,
with grace if at all possible, oddly moving.”