A Free and Un-obnoxious Press

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John Hancock knows what’s up. (utexas.edu)

As a journalist, I'm sure many expect me to be a diehard advocate for the freedom of the press.  One may think, "Hey, he's a member of the press.  He should want to be free."  In most cases I do press hard for press freedom (at least in my thoughts–people don't often ask my opinion on the subject) if not solely because of the added life accountability can breathe into a society.  Just by publishing a story, or airing an interview, countless numbers of people from now until the end of digital records could possibly be influenced by the reported perspective of a newsmaker.

But perhaps you caught my "…In most cases…" caveat to an otherwise noble ideal.  The founding fathers (John Hancock being one of the first advocates) knew that a free society could not flourish in its freedom until the threats of sedition and treason were lifted from those printing *relative* truths.  (The first journalists printed some pretty terrible things.)  That noble beginning aside, I'm bothered by the occasional perversion of the First Amendment by the proud, the few, the Obnoxious Journalist Crowd.

Of course there was a catalyst to this post.  A one-time sportscaster turned filmmaker made it to the Drudge Report, when said filmmaker stood outside the Annenberg Journalism School at USC and said he wanted to interview Katie Couric about the Couric-Palin interview popularized during the 2008 election.  Couric was at USC accepting an award for journalism excellence, and the filmmaker seemed to be making the point the award was a farce. 

As seen in this curious video, the filmmaker is confronted by university staff, and then security, and told to leave because his credentials were not in order.  Then he was trespassing.  Then he was not in a designated press area.  He was ordered to stop filming (his crew did not oblige–good for them) and the security guards cuffed him, pulled him a few yards away, and waited for police. 

When the police arrive, they gave him the "leave or go to jail" ultimatum.  He chose "leave" and screamed "Freedom!" as the notably tight handcuffs are removed.

Part of me immediately sympathizes with this guy–he's just trying to ask a question, though he's a pain in USC's butt, so what?  I think the security guards were unjustified in his detainment, and the local police should've been brought in from the get-go.  No law was necessarily broken, by the USC flack's admission. 

But despite those legitimate points, this filmmaker resorts to resisting arrest, making a larger scene, and finally screaming out "freedom," somewhat cheapening the self-sacrifice of William Wallace during his gruesome disembowelment fighting for Scotland's still unachieved, complete sovereignty

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Hamilton’s defense of a sedition case may have been one of the strongest American precedents for press freedom. (columbia.edu)

I understand the responsibility of a strong press–hold the powers accountable, and the people empowered.  There are serious press issues being dealt with in the world today, with serious journalists in life and death situations, most notably being the case of Roxana Saberi.  Against that serious backdrop, making a "police state" claim against USC for a question to Katie Couric seems, itself, like a farce.

I'm seeing it more and more–or maybe looking for them more and more–with citizen journalists, or 'independent producers' or bloggers trying to shake things up with confrontational "Gotcha" interview techniques.  If you go into a situation hoping for an aggressive, confrontational outcome, you'll probably get one. 

But during these posturing exercises I worry the First Amendment claim is becoming a "Boy who cried Wolf" situation.  Will people still listen if a true violation of press freedom comes along in this country?  Will there be the outcry and strong reaction necessary?  Or will we sit back and view the situation cynically, wanting to support the person, but having a hard time making sense of it all?

The First Amendment is an integral part of our society, and shouldn't be cheapened by every "Don't Taze me Bro" antic. 

Bro.

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