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.


Flink hardly comes across as a right-winger -- he condemns Rush Limbaugh for inciting "anger, discontent, hate, and faceless populism" -- yet he also makes a second Borkian move by looking to the Framers for guidance on the proper role of the press. "Eloquently and without exception," he asserts, the Framers lauded "the free press as the sentinel who guards democracy." Here he builds on the late Justice Potter Stewart, who, in a 1974 Yale Law School speech, contended that the First Amendment was written to promote "organized, expert scrutiny of government" -- i.e., investigative reporting. In this view, irresponsible journalism is a slap at James Madison.


Contemplating the press of their era, though, Madison and Jefferson didn't see Woodward and Bernstein. Instead they saw harried printers who, alongside more remunerative activities like running off business forms and religious tracts, sometimes published newspapers. The "news" in such papers was minimal: items about local deaths, elections, fires, and the like, based on information provided by readers, and items about events elsewhere, which were lifted, often unchanged and without credit, from other papers. A larger portion of the late-18th-century newspaper consisted of what we would consider op-ed pieces or editorials. From the Stamp Act on, most newspapers allied themselves with one side and published essays intended to advance its interests. Accuracy was less important than believability. Opposing views were omitted or caricatured. Printers unabashedly served The Cause, not any notion of fairness, objectivity, or truth.


A modern newspaper that mimicked the Framers' press would no doubt appall Flink. So, for that matter, would most American newspapers of the past two centuries. His book's air of crisis is thus a bit hard to fathom. If media are "the mucilage of a free society," as he contends, then his book is more reassuring than alarming. Flink shows that the American press has been far worse when the stakes were considerably higher, as in the Revolutionary era and the Civil War, and yet American democracy somehow survived. Even appallingly irresponsible media seem to provide a mucilage that's sufficiently gooey.


A second problem for Flink is the marketplace. The author serenely asserts that more responsible journalism would prove more profitable, but surely those corporate bosses, whose bottom-line obsessions he laments, would have seized upon such a road to riches. Americans favor People over the Economist, Barbara Walters over Jim Lehrer. Indeed, the author discloses that he has nourished those unworthy tastes himself. As a Life correspondent in 1951, he published a detailed description of the room in which William Randolph Hearst had died, plus an exclusive interview of Hearst's grieving lady friend, Marion Davies. If this deathbed mise en scene attracted newsstand browsers who might otherwise have snatched up the latest Foreign Policy, the author offers no apology.


And why should he? Flink believes that the vital issue is "not so much the public's right to know but the public's need to know." But what of the public's right not to give a damn? What of the right of Americans to be lousy citizens, to immerse themselves in schlock about Marion Davies or the People's Princess? Those are questions that the author never asks. Just as he thinks libel awards are too important to be left to "unconstrained" juries, perhaps he thinks information choices are too important to be left to unconstrained citizens.


The American news media, of course, warrant plenty of scrutiny. And, on the whole, they're getting it. Media critics like Howard Kurtz, David Shaw, William Powers, and the late Edwin Diamond have done first-rate work. Steve Brill, whose American Lawyer has aired the dirty secrets of attorneys, is launching a magazine about journalism. More and more research institutions, both university-affiliated and freestanding, are investigating how the press might improve itself, sometimes by supervising real-world experiments in " civic journalism." All in all, it's better to have this plethora of critics and organizations poking away at the press, like the various groups that issue scorecards for members of Congress, rather than Flink's vision of a single organization enforcing its monolithic view of journalistic propriety.


The first chapter of Sentinel Under Siege features an epigraph from Tom Stoppard's Night and Day, saying in part: "Information is light. Information, in itself, about anything, is light. That's all you can say, really." Two lines uttered by a different character in Stoppard's play may bear more directly on Flink's effort. "Junk journalism," the reporter declares, "is the evidence of a society that has got at least one thing right, that there should be nobody with the power to dictate where responsible journalism begins." And, referring to a would-be media reformer, he says: " What Dick wants is a right-thinking press -- one that thinks like him."




Stephen Bates, literacy editor of the Wilson Quarterly, has written widely about journalism and politics.