Why American journalists won’t stand up for the First Amendment

At Newsweek, Ben Adler asks: why aren’t American journalists standing up for WikiLeaks. He sees three reasons:

1. Refusal to engage in advocacy: American journalists, unlike many of their foreign counterparts, have a strong commitment to objectivity and nonpartisanship. At many mainstream media organizations, signing petitions is verboten, and many journalists impose such rules on themselves. According to Shapiro, who co-wrote the Columbia letter, when they circulated the document, “Some people said, ‘As a journalist, I make it my practice never to sign a petition.’ ” As an example, Bill Grueskin, the dean of academic affairs at Columbia’s Journalism School, did not sign. Asked why by NEWSWEEK, he said he’s “not much of one for signing group letters.”

2. Opposition to Assange’s purpose: That same notion of objectivity shared by journalists makes many of them suspicious of WikiLeaks’s journalistic bona fides. Assange has an advocacy mission: to disrupt the functioning of governments. Many investigative journalists, like the famous muckrakers at the turn of the last century, have had a similar orientation, says Shapiro, who wrote the book Shaking the Foundations: 200 Years of Investigative Journalism in America. “WikiLeaks springs from the same purpose as investigative journalism: a sense that the system is corrupt and the truth can be told,” says Shapiro. “It’s a reformist rather than radical agenda.” Even so, many mainstream reporters, editors, and producers might see associating with Assange as inappropriately endorsing an advocacy mission.

3. Opposition to Assange’s methods: Some journalists, while perhaps believing Assange should not be prosecuted, are so disgusted with his approach that they are reluctant to weigh in publicly. Sam Freedman, a journalism professor at Columbia University, did not sign the letter his colleagues circulated because, “I felt the letter did not adequately criticize the recklessness—the disregard for the consequences of human lives—of a massive dump of confidential info.” Freedman says prosecuting Assange would set a dangerous precedent for legitimate journalists. But many think, as Freedman does, that Assange did not exhibit the judiciousness that a journalist must when releasing classified information.

Some would take issue with that. WikiLeaks did, in fact, offer the State Department an opportunity to request that sensitive information be withheld. But pointing to WikiLeaks as a paradigm of a free press at work is not a position many journalists want to find themselves in. “From a legal perspective, the media may not want this to be the test case,” says Dan Abrams, NBC’s legal analyst and the founder of the Mediaite blog. “This example is almost a classic law school worst-case scenario for testing the bounds of the First Amendment. [Journalists] think it’s within his rights to do have done it, but they think he ought not to have done it. That’s the fundamental tension in the way the media’s covering the story, and the tepid defenses.”

In other words, American journalists are too objective and too highly principled to align themselves with WikiLeaks.

Or maybe it has more to do with the fact that most American journalists receive their pay checks from media corporations whose own cozy relations with the US government must not be put in jeopardy by an anarchic organization like WikiLeaks.

When self-interest and the status quo so closely coincide, why speak up? And when newspapers are constantly making staff cuts, who imagines that the fiercest advocates of First Amendment rights will also be seen as the most reliable “team players” — the ones who can be confident that they will be among the last thrown off board?

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5 thoughts on “Why American journalists won’t stand up for the First Amendment

  1. rosemerry

    “massive dump” not realising the consequences? Sam Freedman is unobservant, uncaring or lying.

  2. rosemerry

    I have seen these so-called objective reports. Pathetic. eg an Israeli injured child and a Palestinian injured child. What could be fairer???????How can a real investigative journalist not care enough to sign a petition? Has (s)he no principles at all?
    As for the aim of disrupting gov’t, I think Assange’s aim is to show the public what is done in their name(ostensibly); that is not the same thing, and seems to me reasonable as Robert Lowe wrote in London in 1848.

  3. pangloss

    So the overall conclusion is that the USA now has no, or extremely few, real journalist working for the main segments of corporate, both public & private, media. A real journalist would be defined, I would think, as one for whom your “founding fathers” wrote the 1st Amendment to your set of governing rules, aka your constitution. I understand the concern for ones job in a seemingly dying industry during difficult times but don’t understand the elaborate fandangoes people working in the media, as so-called journalist, subject other people to in order to mask their economic concerns. Schmucks or shmegegges http://bit.ly/a6yZEE I pick the latter.

    Just for interest, as it relates to what I’d call so-called journalist a link to John Pilger’s new film The War You Don’t See:


  4. rick

    All the factors sketched in this recent thread (link below) help explain the reluctance of American MSM journalists to defend Wikileaks under the First Amendment:

    Besides the Advertiser Pressure I documented (in that thread’s Comment),
    the MSM is also vulnerable to *subscriber* pressure. Polls repeatedly
    show the majority of the American public opposes Wikileaks as a threat
    to “National Security”.

    So besides the cowardice/timidity/self-interest of *individual* journalists,
    something similar operates at the level of the *institution*.

    Thus, I’m not surprised to read Ben Adler’s article report that:
    “The New York Times, which received earlier WikiLeaks document dumps,
    has not run an editorial on the subject and did not respond
    to a request for comment as to the reason.”

    To survive as an Info Broker in a capitalist society, a journalist
    (Individual or Institutional) must cultivate (i.e, kiss the ass of)
    both sources and audiences — money must come from somewhere.

    And if your “anonymous, highly-placed govt. sources” don’t like your
    new “Politics of Transparency” or don’t trust you to protect your own leaky, anonymous sources, they will take their self-interested leaks
    to a more well-behaved journalist.

    Now you’ve lost your sources *and* your audience!

    We know that Third-party (e.g, advertising) money shapes, subsidizes,
    selects, and censors “objective” info content.

    Unfortunately, the Subscriber model in America increasingly
    distorts info too. Much of the American public actively “subscribes”
    to certain simplistic, polarized ideologies. It’s not just that
    we want “trusted media intermediaries” to summarize and select
    the “most important” wikileaks info — we want summaries and
    selections that support our preconceived notions. The alternative
    is an agonizing reappraisal of our comfortable ideologies and
    worldviews … and we “trust” our chosen media intermediaries
    to titillate us and pander to us, but not to seriously challenge
    our comfort level.

  5. seamus o'bannion

    Why was the press silent when General Butler made his revelations public? Why did the Congress let treason slide?

    Your premise of “bi-partisan” and “objectivity” is a crock. The press is a major player in this three-ring circus, and its function is to keep you focused on the magician’s half-naked assistant and not on his sleeves.


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