Freedom of speech, mass media, and debate
A response to Taking Sides – Clashing Views in Mass Media and Society – Issue 8
In the affirmative argument, Kathleen Jamieson argues that the First Amendment has protected the media and allowed it to cover many sides of issues, even sides the government might want to suppress. In the negative response, Thomas Patterson says the mainstream press hasn’t fought for its own freedom, routinely excludes unpopular opinions, and is more concerned with dollars than debate.
Jamieson thinks the press has the freedom and contains the robust debate the framers intended when they wrote the Bill of Rights. She cites the case law progressively strengthening this right and also the development of broadcast law, which has as its heart a notion of opening discussion for the public good. Watergate and the Pentagon Papers provide two good examples of the press using this power to defend citizens against the government. Political speech that offends and may even seem irrational today is protected as vigorously as the political speech of the part in power. And voters today are exposed to many different sides-everyone from Marxists to Buddhists to Bill Clinton in the 1992 primaries, for example. The development of technologies has broadened communication and debate as well.
Patterson says Watergate and the Pentagon Papers are an oasis in a desert of mundane mainstream press practices. The mainstream press has not been the driving party in many First Amendment cases, and has been played like a fiddle by people like McCarthy. The press control the government orchestrated in the Persian Gulf War is a good example of the media’s willingness to be controlled; only the alternative press protested. Patterson argues that individual publications and broadcasters have displayed little interest in public debate and more in being able to exclude opinions they don’t like. And finally, he says the press is more interested in making money than anything else. Television and competition for customers have dumbed down news more than opened debate.
What interests me about these articles is how both look at the same case law and come to different conclusions. Jamieson sees Miami Herald v. Tornillo as the court defending the press’ right to refuse to publish even if it’s in the state’s interest. Patterson sees the same case as strike against hearing all sides in a political debate. Jamieson sees the series of cases defining the First Amendment as the government’s (or at least, the court’s) struggle to guarantee free expression; Patterson says the mainstream press are rarely the ones fighting for the freedoms they enjoy. Patterson’s point is interesting and I wish someone had thought of it while I was in media law class. Why is it that the mainstream press has not been on the front lines of its own freedom?
I think Patterson’s final point, about commercialism over communication, deserves its own chapter. Giant corporations and profit-minded individual ownership of mass media helps narrow the marketplace of ideas in key ways. I’m going to make this point in my paper, too, because I think Internet news may be even more apt for this-most people get news on the internet from companies that have never had anything to do with news (Microsoft, AOL, Netscape). Though they outsource to more traditional providers (AP, Reuters, etc) they’ll happily go with the lowest bidder and have no sense of journalistic mission whatsoever.