First Amendment in Crisis

Dateline: February 20, 2017

By S.I. Wells

The gun lobby sees a constitutional crisis every time someone mentions gun control. Gun owners rise up and proclaim their constitutional right “to keep and bear arms.” Legislative attempts, nationally and locally, to curb even the most egregious assault weapons have little success. “We, the People…” let our voices be heard at every twist and turn, at every Sandy Hook and at every gun show across the land. Trying to wage an assault on assault weapons fails because the will of the people to have unfettered access to guns is strong and loudly proclaimed.

Just one month into the Trump presidency, however, a new front has been opened against the Bill of Rights, specifically against freedoms contained in the First Amendment. In that Amendment, the Founding Fathers wrote: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;” Clear, simple, concise language that prohibits Congress from diminishing freedom of speech or of the press.

The Amendment says “Congress.” It doesn’t say the “President.” While the President can’t pass legislation, he can propose it and he can sign legislation passed by the House and the Senate into law. If that legislation violates our “freedom of speech, or of the press,” we expect that the judiciary will stand its ground and strike the law down as unconstitutional. Of course, if the Supreme Court is packed with a majority who support limiting these rights, then these rights could be diminished.

However, in today’s electronic world, the influence of the press can be diminished without legislation simply by changing the public’s perception of the value of the press. If a President tries to tar and feather the press as a corrupt institution that makes up false facts and packages hidden agendas as if they were truths, it is possible the public will over time lose confidence in the press and its value to a free society will be degraded.

And therein lies the issue. If the press allows itself to be painted into a corner by the President and people no longer believe what is reported, even in the most rigorously researched and vetted articles, the value of the free press will be reduced to rubble. To let a rogue President mischaracterize the press as an institution so untrustworthy that it should be ignored is a de facto abridgement of our freedom of speech. If the President can destroy through words the public’s faith in an entire industry, it is time for that industry to fight back.

So far, from what I have seen, journalists far and wide, editorial pages and opinion pundits have expressed their horror and frustration at the new President’s use of made-up facts and unverifiable “truths.” Screaming at the moon, however, will not make it change its color.

No, the real crisis is not the assault by the President on the media, it is the public’s perception of the value of the media. Having a constitutional right of free press in guaranteed. The public’s trust in that free press, however, is not.

Calling out the President every time he utters a lie, makes up a “fact” or lambasts a journalist or a news organization just won’t work. Fighting in the framework established by the President, one where he won’t lose support if he shoots someone on 5th Avenue in New York, is playing a losing game.

To win and therefore to defeat this President and save the press as an important pillar of democracy and a vital business in the United States, the press must take on this assault in no less vigorous terms than the gun lobby uses to protect its rights under the Second Amendment.

The press must rewrite its handbook and regain the trust of the public. In fact, the press must enter upon a course to make itself “the most trusted” part of our democracy. Finding a way to reach every American in a way that earns their confidence about what is being reported is the only way forward. Going toe-to-toe with a dictator who spews propaganda that is believed by the masses, because they drank the Kool-Aid or the Trump water, is not going to change people’s minds. Shouting at people whose ears are covered is just shouting into the wind.

Good and rigorous principles of journalism are no longer enough. Reaching the people and reigniting their trust in the institution of the free press is the only way. Bending the truth, “showing people the way” by printing it in newspapers that are delivered to someone’s front door isn’t going to cut it anymore. The press is no longer in the position referred to by William Randolph Hearst who famously said, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

With an unlimited number of news and opinion outlets courtesy of the internet, talk is cheap, opinions abound and the truth is subject to Mark Twain’s exhortation that, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” And Twain died in 1910. So today, a lie can travel around the world in just a fraction of a second and be on people’s lips instantaneously. The power of a falsehood with an internet megaphone will trump the truth offered even a few minutes later.

So, for those of you who want it summed up in just a sentence: The press must regain a position of trust and confidence in American hearts and minds or its constitutionally protected right will be of no value. To expose an oppressor, the press must be the champion of the oppressed. The President is disenfranchising the press in the court of public opinion by saying it is the “enemy” of the American people. To protect its constitutional right, the press must now prove to the American people its intrinsic value in protecting their unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”


S. I. Wells has worked in foreign diplomacy, public broadcasting, the Federal court system and healthcare during his career. He is a senior columnist for Stay Thirsty Magazine and writes on topics that range from the economy to social policy to politics.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.


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