At Large: No time to be complacent

The most recent 2009 State of the First Amendment report of the First Amendment Center in Washington is, as most of its predecessors have been, disappointing. For folks in the news business, never mind those of us who are big into freedom and liberty, it’s especially trying to learn that most Americans, 49 percent of those surveyed, use the television as the primary news source. Fifteen percent went to the Internet, 13 percent to radio, and a sad 10 percent to the newspaper. The old folks were the biggest TV news adherents, but even among 18- to 35-year olds, 42 percent got the news from the tube.

If you are a hopeful regressive, as I am, you will be cheered to learn that just one percent relied on Twitter, social networking sites, and email for news.

Here’s a bit of better news from the 2009 survey. We trust information we find on the Internet more, if it is published there by local news media, which is, for us, mvtimes.com. Non-local, less trustworthy. Twitter and social networking sites barely register on the reliability index.

This will, I hope, cause consternation. Thirty-nine percent of Americans surveyed could not name any of the freedoms in the First Amendment. And, while 55 percent of Americans could name freedom of speech as a First Amendment guarantee, just 18 percent could name freedom of religion, 16 percent freedom of the press, 14 percent freedom of assembly, and just four percent the right to petition the government. Plus, 19 percent of those surveyed complained that the First Amendment is too generous in its declaration of rights that the government must keep its hands off. It’s disturbing.

Disturbing too: 39 percent agree that the press has too much freedom to do what it wants. The survey sample must have been heavily inter-larded with politicians. The First Amendment Center writes, “Over the past few years, the percentage saying that the press has ‘too little’ freedom has declined and the percentage saying it has ‘too much’ freedom has increased slightly.”

A disappointing 66 percent of those surveyed don’t think the news media tries to report the news without bias. Fewer, 58 percent, suspected the media of bias when the question was posed in 2004. Just 27 percent think news outlets do try to report unbiased information. Thirty-nine percent held this view five years ago.

Still, despite all that is deflating about these survey results, about 70 percent of Americans — about seven in 10 Americans — say it is important for our democracy that the news media be the government’s watchdog, down five percent from results in previous surveys, when 75 percent of those interviewed held that view.

To sum it up, Americans think the news media have a job to do, but they ought to be doing it better, and that’s tough to refute. Nevertheless, the important rights that Americans certainly cherish can be neglected, and with neglect, there can be a lapse of vigilance.

For instance, yesterday was National Bill of Rights Day. If you missed the parades and the speeches, you didn’t miss much. There were none. There never are. Americans are careless of the guarantees embodied in the Bill of Rights. Or rather, they are complacent.

The carefully crafted relationship among the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights served several ends, among them the checks and balances among the divisions of government, meant to moderate the inclinations of a central and powerful national authority. We learn about checks and balances in school. What we do not learn so well is how the Bill of Rights, as James Madison saw it, had another, more fundamentally important job to do.

As Joseph Postell of The Heritage Foundation explains it, the clever strategic formula of checks and balances “does not explain how the Founders proposed to safeguard individual liberty from tyranny of the majority, rather than tyranny of the rulers over the ruled. The safeguard of individual liberty, Madison reasoned, must lie with the people themselves. It is the people who must be responsible for defending their liberties. And a bill of rights, Madison and his colleagues finally concluded, might support public understanding and knowledge of individual liberty that would assist citizens in the task of defending their liberties.

“A bill of rights, they saw, could serve the noble purpose of public education and edification. As Madison confided to Jefferson, ‘The political truths declared in that solemn manner [in the Bill of Rights] acquire by degrees the character of fundamental maxims of free government, and as they become incorporated with the national sentiment, counteract the impulses of interest and passion.’”

The hope is that Madison was right.