Freedom and the Press

It is doctrine in the newspaper business--and a disgrace to our profession--that the press does a miserable job of reporting news about itself. We cover wars and Watergates, politics and pollution, riots and romance like rain on a flat rock. Yet we approach stories about our problems and our accomplishments with a shyness and discomfort that mock our reputation for toughness.

As a result, at a time when the press faces major problems, and when the public is focusing--as rarely before--on the press as a root of major evil, the public still knows almost nothing about the press, and the press is doing precious little that isn't paranoid, shrill or defensive to correct this critical deficiency. Since Vice President Agnew has resigned to escape a jail sentence, it is easier to see--and say--that the press has overreacted to criticism, particularly criticism from on high. Long before Spiro T. Agnew launched his alliterative assault on the press, an earlier vice president, with far more impressive credentials, had staked out criticism of the press as his own territory.

"Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper," he wrote. "...that man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them: inasmuch as he knows nothing is nearer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehood and errors." This was no run-of-the-mill vice president, but Thomas Jefferson, better known and more often remembered for his stated preference for newspapers without government over government without newspapers.

It is obviously fair to say that criticism of the press by the high and mighty is nothing new, just as it is historically accurate to note that newspapers and newspapermen have an encouraging way of outlasting any particular critic.

Criticism of the press does not threaten the press or the republic until and unless this criticism is part of a general offensive against the press. It is my thesis that the press today is the target of exactly such an offensive. It is my thesis that the freedom of the press is threatened today as it has not been since the expiration of the Sedition Act in 1801.

Journalists like to believe that it is no accident that the First Amendment comes first, that all constitutional rights depend on the right to know, and that the right to know depends on a free press. But here, too, the press has done a miserable job in reporting and explaining the importance--in simple, relevant, human terms--of the First Amendment or the threat to the First Amendment. It is such a simple, splendid concept, the First Amendment: No one in government can interfere in the process of gathering and printing news.

It is appalling to me to realize how apathetic the public can be in the face of so much government interference in the process of gathering and printing news:

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, two reporters were held in contempt of a U.S. District Court order barring them from covering a public civil rights hearing.

A Massachusetts trial judge has ordered a Wall Street Journal reporter to disclose the name of the source of her story about a prominent builder.

The Florida Supreme Court has upheld a long-forgotten and unused 60-year-old law requiring newspapers to give equal space to political candidates who have been criticized in print. The case, involving the Miami Herald, is being appealed to the Supreme Court.

I have a list of 27 cases--all in the last two years--where laws and decisions by government were made restricting the freedom of the press. It is neither paranoid nor shrill, nor even defensive, to point out that such actions are apparently forbidden by the First Amendment.

In March of 1973, the Nixon administration introduced a bill in Congress which, if enacted, will quite simply emasculate freedom of the press, and end for all time the noble art of investigative reporting. The bill makes it a crime, punishable by jail terms of from three to seven years, or by fines of from $25,000 to $50,000, or both, for anyone authorized to control or possess classified information to communicate this information to anyone not authorized by the government to receive it.

Classified information is defined as any information marked or designated pursuant to the provisions of any law, executive order, regulation or rule as information requiring a specific degree of protection against unauthorized disclosure for reasons of national security.

The proposed law specifically precludes as a defense against prosecution that the classified information was improperly classified at the time of its classification, or at the time of its disclosure.

Laws already on the books make it a crime to divulge secrets about electronic codes and surveillance techniques, about military equipment, about atomic secrets, and about military operations which might aid an American enemy.