New problems, some rays of hope, in First Amendment fight

October 20, 2017 04:00

By Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director

Wow. It has been a head-spinning week for press freedom.
 
First, the good news. On Tuesday – finally – FCC Chairman Ajit Pai stated publicly that “The FCC will stand for the First Amendment” and not revoke broadcast stations’ licenses based on newscast content. Sure, it took him nearly a week to speak out after one of President Trump's “fake news” tweets suggested that licenses should be challenged because of news reports with which he disagreed. But at least Pai reassured nervous news outlets.
 
And there was one smaller, but still significant, win in a North Dakota courtroom. One year after journalist Sarah Lafleur-Vetter was arrested while videotaping for the Guardian a protest against the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, a judge dismissed all charges against her: misdemeanor charges of physical obstruction of a government function, disobedience of safety orders during a riot and disorderly conduct.
 
One of the attorneys in the case told the Bismarck Tribune, "’Obviously, there's concerns whenever journalists are arrested because they're not necessarily participating in a demonstration or a certain action." … [In] Lafleur-Vetter's case, ‘everybody was just herded and treated as a group.’"
 
That’s a practice being used increasingly by law enforcement around the country when protests occur. Known as “kettling,” officers will surround a group of protestors, often including journalists who are working nearby. Police will then order the group to disperse, knowing they have nowhere to go because they’re surrounded by officers. Then they declare the assembly unlawful and arrest everyone inside the perimeter – including the journalists.
 
The St. Louis Police Department has become particularly adept at “kettling.” At least ten journalists have been arrested during the past month or so while covering protests surrounding the acquittal of a white former officer in the shooting death of an African-American man. The RTDNA Voice of the First Amendment Task Force and other press freedom groups have condemned the arrests and are continuing to demand St. Louis city officials allow journalists to perform their Constitutionally-guaranteed duty to seek and report the truth.
 
According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which RTDNA is a founding partner, at least 31 journalists have been arrested around the country so far in 2017 just for doing their jobs. Many of them are still facing criminal charges. Also alarming is that at least 30 journalists have been physically assaulted, some by police officers.
 
On the negative side this week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions once again declined to assure the public that the Department of Justice will not target journalists in its current crackdown on government leaks. On Wednesday, he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee and had this exchange with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
 
KLOBUCHAR: Will you commit to not putting reporters in jail for doing their jobs?

SESSIONS: Well, I don't know that I can make a blanket commitment to that effect. But I would say this: We have not taken any aggressive action against the media at this point. But we have matters that involve the most serious national security issues, that put our country at risk, and we will utilize the authorities that we have, legally and constitutionally, if we have to.
 
Maybe we — we always try to find an alternative way, as you probably know, Sen. Klobuchar, to directly confronting a media person. But that's not a total, blanket protection.

 
It’s the “if we have to” part that is particularly concerning to RTDNA, given that the Justice Department is currently reviewing Obama administration D.O.J. rules that discourage federal investigators from issuing subpoenas to journalists in an attempt to force them to reveal their sources.
 
Obama Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch had a policy that allowed such subpoenas only as a last resort, and only with the approval of officials at the highest level of the Justice Department. RTDNA was part of the effort by press freedom groups that successfully advocated for such protections.
 
Also quite troublesome this week was a new Politico/Morning Consult poll which showed that nearly half of U.S. voters believe news organizations fabricate stories about President Trump and his administration; 46 percent to be exact. Only 37 percent of those questioned said they don’t believe the news media fabricate stories. Seventeen percent were undecided.
 
As one would expect, there was a wide disparity between Republicans and Democrats who participated in the survey. Seventy-six percent of those who said they support the G.O.P. believe reporters make up stories, compared to 20 percent of Democrats.
 
On a slightly more positive note, a majority of those asked said the federal government should not be allowed to punish news organizations by revoking the licenses of broadcast stations. Twenty-eight percent think news outlets should be punished for what they perceive as unfair coverage. Fifty-one percent do not, but 21 percent are undecided. Forty-four percent of self-identifying independents favor government retribution.
 
The glass-half-empty view is that about half of U.S. voters either believe the federal government should be able to punish the news media because of the content of its reports, or are undecided.
 
And then there’s this interesting factoid: PolitiFact reports a sharp uptick in President Trump’s use of the term “fake news” in October, compared to September. He’s nowhere near his peak in February, his first full month in office. But according to PolitiFact, the president has used the term 153 times since the beginning of the year.
 

 
Not shockingly, the overwhelming majority of his “fake news” assertions have come on Twitter.
 
The Voice of the First Amendment Task Force has two missions. The first is to defend against attacks on press freedom. The second is to help the public better understand why responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives.
 
The events of this past week show that the task force still has much work to do. But journalists have a crucial role to play in this effort, too, particularly when it comes to rebuilding the public’s trust.
 
Ask yourself these questions:
 
  1. Is your newsroom reporting stories that expose problems in your community, and then following up with stories about potential solutions?
  2. If you’re a news director, editor, general manager or publisher, have you taken steps to protect the safety of your reporters and photojournalists, for example safety courses, self-defense training, and extra security precautions at the station or office?
  3. If you’re a general manager or a news director or a print or digital editor, are you making an effort to speak to the public – on the air, online, during speaking engagements, and during conversations with influential people in your community – about the public service your news organization regularly provides?
  4. If you’re a television or radio news director, do your news anchors and reporters explain on the air, and/or on your station’s website and social media channels, the process they go through in order to report news stories?
  5. Do you publicly discuss the ethical dilemmas you face when reporting particular stories and the process through which you’ve gone to resolve them?
  6. If you’re a broadcaster, do you air public service announcements that explain the importance of responsible journalism to your community?
  7. Do you, if you’re a broadcast station executive, do on-air editorials in which you explain your station’s newsgathering philosophy and commitment to serve your community?
It’s an understatement to say that we are still in troubled times for journalism. RTDNA is concerned that things will get worse before they get better. But know this, journalists: We’ve got your back.
 
Subscribe to VFA updates. Contact the RTDNA Voice of the First Amendment Task Force by emailing pressfreedom@rtdna.org.