The Magazine

FREEDOM OF PREACH

Sep 29, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 03 • By STEPHEN BATES
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Stanley E. Flink

 

Sentinel Under Siege

The Triumphs and Troubles of America's Free Press

 

Westview, 309 pp., $ 28


ln 1947, the American news media got a public spanking from, in Editor & Publisher's dismissive phrase, "11 professors, a banker-merchant and a poet- librarian." The loftily named Commission on Freedom of the Press declared that the media's shortcomings "have ceased to be private vagaries and have become public dangers"; at stake was nothing short of "the preservation of democracy and perhaps of civilization." Commission members --including University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins (the chairman), theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, political scientist Harold Lasswell, "banker- merchant" Beardsley Rural, "poet-librarian" Archibald MacLeish, and other intellectual luminaries of the day --offered an assortment of proposals for reforming the press. "The Commission's recommendations," Hutchins acknowledged, "are not startling." The press took umbrage at the whole enterprise, and the proposals had roughly zero impact.


Fifty years later, many of the same unstartling recommendations appear in Stanley Flink's Sentinel Under Siege. Flink, like Hutchins et al., wishes journalists were better educated, more ethical, quicker to confess error, more sensitive to privacy concerns, and subject to more criticism from within and without. The Hutchins crew suggested "a new and independent agency" to appraise the press. Flink, who devotes a chapter and a half to the 1947 commission, advocates a "credible, independent oversight body" that would issue seals of approval. Unlike the commission, he thinks this approval should depend partly on a newspaper's record of "enlarging minority participation and upward mobility." Overall, though, his book demonstrates just how little blueprints for media reform have changed in 50 years. While Flink suggests convening another Hutchins Commission, we could simply republish the 1947 report and be done with it.


More provocative than Flink's threadbare (but largely astute) hows of media reform is his why. Unless journalists quit shirking their democratic duties, he writes, they may well find themselves facing "a reexamination of First Amendment protections." Upgrading journalism won't merely protect democracy, in this formulation (another echo of the Hutchins report); it will also protect the press itself. That's a nice First Amendment you've got there, pal --it'd be a shame if anything happened to it. . . .


In making his case, Flink, a former Life writer and TV producer, provides a mostly lively, engaging overview of journalism history. He moves briskly through the Revolution, the birth of the First Amendment, and the partisan press of the era. After an overlong discussion of slavery and its aftermath, we ease into the 20th century and the rise of advertising, when newspapers became "the single most important marketing instrument for American products" and the advertiser supplanted the politician as the power behind the masthead.


Entertaining and informative as they are, though, the tales from the past fail to bear the weight Flink places on them. To begin with, if the First Amendment is going to be eroded, as the author warns, the reason won't be that newspapers toady to corporate interests or that the public is trivia- minded. From the Sedition Act onward, history demonstrates that the press faces trouble when the press makes trouble. Consumerism and fluff don't provoke elected officials or Supreme Court justices to hack away at press freedom.


Anyway, the author himself seems to be of two minds about the First Amendment. He offers the dubious proposition that "two centuries of judicial interpretation and legislative statutes have left the First Amendment on shaky ground," then, instead of urging Americans to defend their sacred liberty against any and all incursions, he counsels that we stop exercising it so cavalierly. He writes that trashy tabloids "have presumed constitutional protection" and notes with approval the view that the First Amendment ought to cover only discussions of public issues and not literature, music, drama, Entertainment Weekly, or anything else. For this politics - - only limitation -- a limitation accepted by none of the recent Supreme Court justices whom Flink charges with enfeebling the First Amendment -- he quotes Alexander Meiklejohn; he could just as well quote Robert Bork.