At Large : Bad news
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
- The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
It was petition that tripped me up. Religion, speech, press, assembly: I and my team remembered all of them. None of the four of us - one, a Quebecois, could be excused - remembered petition. We hung our heads in shame.
It was a quiz, at one of those seminars newspaper folk attend to learn how to do the work of their withering industry better. Upon reflection, the time might have been more profitably spent learning to send a text message with one thumb, at blinding speed, and hold the capitalization and punctuation.
I don't know how I could have forgotten petition. Isn't someone lurking in the front of Cronig's on every Sunday morning, asking folks to sign a petition for some referendum question? And, haven't Vineyarders marched on the State House - or rather bused to the State House - countless times on missions of mano a mano persuasion, sometimes successfully? That's just another example of your First Amendment rights in action.
I imagine newspaper people nowadays focus less on the First Amendment and more on how the Big 3 are doing on Capitol Hill, figuring that the publishers of the nation's biggest newspapers, not to mention the television news networks, may need to knock on Congress's door soon enough, that the industry bigwigs ought to watch how the auto makers make their pitches.
But that's pretty grim stuff, and the smaller fry of the news business (us, for instance) are more interested in the founding principles and stuff like that. Sadly, we're rarely prepared for what we learn about the First Amendment, when we pay it the attention it deserves.
For instance, we learn that the news media gets poor marks from its readers. Studies, surveys, and focus groups tell us that readers resent the press and its practices. People call the news media arrogant, inaccurate, superficial, sensational, biased, and bent. And they think it causes more problems than it helps solve.
Now, that's a shocker, not at all the way I see it. I knew there were, now and again, disgruntled readers, but I put it down to hormonal imbalances. And, besides, how come no one ever criticizes the bloggers.
How about this, also from a Freedom Forum survey:
" ... some of the findings in this survey arrive as a jolt to the constitutional conscience: More than half of the respondents believe the press has too much freedom.
"Half believe the Constitution should be amended to override the First Amendment's protection of flag-burning as political protest.
"Nearly one-third believe the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees."
" ... The news in this survey was especially bad for the press. When asked whether they think the press has too much freedom, 53 percent of the respondents said yes. That represents an increase of 15 percentage points from the 38 percent who said yes to the same question in 1997.
"The bad news keeps coming. In disturbing numbers, Americans said newspapers should not be allowed to publish freely without government approval, that they should not be allowed to endorse or criticize political candidates, that journalists should not be able to use hidden cameras for newsgathering, and that the news media should be able to publish government secrets."
There are several possible reactions to this surprising news. You might conclude we journalists have some work to do with our readers. You might think we ought to tone it down a little. You might figure it would make sense to try to broaden readers' understanding of the importance of the First Amendment. You might say, who cares, no one's going to repeal the First Amendment. And, no one reads newspapers anyhow. You might wonder if kids are learning about the central importance of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment, and newspapers in school. You might say, things are just plain going to hell, and newspapers are leading the way.
Still, hard as it often is to hear, I wonder, what would you say?