By William Fisher
It must have been the late 1950s and I couldn’t have been more than 18 – I hadn’t yet finished undergrad school. But I had a job on what was widely thought of as one of the most progressive dailies in the South – the Daytona Beach (Florida) News-Journal.
And if this wasn’t enough for a kid from Brooklyn, there was a bonus: I was to be the paper’s “overhead man” for the Associated Press. Let me explain. The AP, representing pretty much all the newspapers in a given area, tries to cover all the news in that area, down to bake sales, church dinners and, of course, sporting events.
The AP’s Jacksonville office, where statewide news was assembled from a team of eager young journalists like me, was particularly a great fan of golf. And with central Florida’s reputation as a retirement home for seniors, several major universities in our area, and even large high schools getting into the golf tournament business, there never seemed to be shortage of scores, personality snippets, and suchlike to satisfy the endless needs of even the most gluttonous golf buffs.
So with all the credibility I could garner from my one golf game with my Dad when I was nine years old, I dove into my new mission with the zeal only an 18-year-old could sustain. And things went well. Folks were reading my stuff. Even more importantly, my editor, Tip Davidson, a veteran of the bare-knuckled Chicago News Bureau, was reading my stuff.
The AP even paid me. The amounts were so tiny that it’s my recollection that the “overhead guys” were allowed to keep their pittance.
Anyway, since those days, the AP has enjoyed a very special place on my journalistic memory lane. I haven’t had much direct contact, but I was very pleased when the AP‘s Washington office chose to interview me for a recent piece they did on US Aid’s field operations.
But what really caught my attention was the news, as reported by Sari Horowitz of the Washington Post, “In a sweeping and unusual move, the Justice Department secretly obtained two months’ worth of telephone records of journalists working for the Associated Press as part of a year-long investigation into the disclosure of classified information about a failed al-Qaeda plot last year.”
The AP’s president said the Justice Department’s actions were a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into newsgathering activities.
Two things I found particularly galling. First, we have a Bill of Rights that’s part of our Constitution. They’re the first ten amendments to that document and the very first one is called the Establishment Clause and covers the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and of assembly, and the right to petition the government.
In very straightforword language it begins: “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.”
Politicians and those who try to buy their votes have been trying to use freedom of the press as if it were a criminal act. It isn’t. It’s right all of us are supposed to enjoy. And it’s worth noting here that this particular right is one where the rhetoric of the Obama Administration has been splendid and the enforcement cusping on shameful.
As a former Constitutional law instructor, the President knows all the right words and all the right body language to look like the most conscientious civil libertarian.
Over the years, this and practically every other U.S. administration has sought to have Congress pass a “press shield” law – one that would protect the nations media from tampering by government or those who wannabee government. But these efforts have always come just so far and then fell like a stone in the Potomac.
One oughta finally get passed. With teeth.
The second thing I found particularly annoying: When I was that kid writing up golf scores for the News-Journal, I remember how the AP guys in Jacksonville – real newsmen – badgered me without reprieve about (a) accuracy – double source it or throw it away; (b) objectivity – be sure to tell both sides of every story (as if stories had only two sides); and institutional track-record (the press is the fourth estate; it has over the years earned the right to be paid attention to.
I remember how hard we young ones worked to fulfill these mandates. They were really important to us. And they still are – no doubt also to those who do these little jobs today.
This may seem a bit simplistic in today’s Internet world, but it’s not a bad place to start. If you do (a) and (b) well, you ought to be able to capitalize on (c).
So what’s happened to the government’s respect for the freedom and accuracy of the press?
Of course, the media has made and will continue to make mistakes. With some awful exceptions, most news outlets try to correct their errors in a timely way.
Writing about this ancient subject makes me feel a little like the granny inveighing against the government, a la, “I hate government interference, just make them keep their hands off my Medicare!”
* *"Fore!" The shouted word by which golfers warn others on the course that they are in danger of being struck by a ball.