Free Speech and the Media


*Disclaimer: I am not a supporter of Barack Obama or any other Presidential candidate at this point; this article simply uses Senator Obama as an example for I feel he has been unfairly treated. It could just as easily have been S. Brownback, R. Giuliani, C. Dodd or, well, anyone.

Free Speech. It’s guaranteed by the first amendment, it’s exercised by writers, novelists, and bloggers nationwide. It’s an instrument to be used in prying loose the clamps of any tyrannical government, it’s been instrumental in fostering novel scientific, economic, and technological advances. It’s something we cherish even more as it’s taken away from others- be they bloggers in Egypt, citizens in China. It’s American.

And it’s Barack Obama supporters’ biggest fear.

But hold that last thought for a moment.

While everyone’s entitled to his own free speech, not all free speech(es) were created equal. Call it a meritocracy, some free speech is just better, worth more to us than others. We’d rather listen to the BBC than that guy yelling at the corner of the street, rather to the Washington Post than that ‘9/11 conspiracy theory’ making the rounds on the internet. All this is with good reason- credible sources who have investigated stories in a credible manner provide credible news.

Therein lies a great difficulty. Sources become credible by investigating stories thoroughly. Once that credibility is established, stations can let a few stories slip through the door without too much of their audience realizing that something is fishy, some side agenda being promoted. The subsequent outrage produced by those who realize the lack of truth behind such stories is easily dismissed by the common person- in his mind, he knows he did watch a credible news station after all.

Now, back to Mr. Obama. No Presidential candidate has been abused so much by this problem thus far than the Illinois senator. Case in point: January 17, 2007. Fox News’ “Big Story” ran a feature on Obama, which described his well-documented smoking habit- the senator told the Chicago Tribune of his habit in 2005- as a “dirty little secret.” The feature flashed images of Obama and cigarettes side by side, faultily emphasizing over and over that Obama tried to hide his smoking habit.

To top it all off, the show brought on a guest analyst who proclaimed that Obama is “considered such a big deal simply because he’s black.” The feature ended with this same analyst comparing Obama to a “mammy,” a caricature of blacks from slave times.

This problem isn’t one of a liberal perspective, or a conservative one. Political viewpoints do not change in the slightest the fact that Fox News was highly irresponsible in publishing that feature. Public opinion is malleable given the proper tools- reputable stations like Fox comprise a majority of those tools. Stations themselves need to both understand and respect that.

And Fox has hardly been unique in its hardly subtle smears of Obama. CNN, and MSNBC both have had a fascination with emphasizing his middle name, Hussein, at every chance they get. Am I criticizing these stations for bringing up the point that his middle name may be a factor as the race progresses? Not in the slightest. But, if they insist on referring to the senator as ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ every time his name comes up, I insist on making more frequent their mentions of ‘John Sidney McCain,’ ‘Rudy Louis Giuliani,’ or ‘John Reid Edwards.’ Calling him by all three of his names is a far more subtle insinuation, far more dangerous to his campaign, and far more unjust than Rush Limbaugh’s idiotic ‘Osama Obama’ ramblings.

The attacks on Obama are just examples of the phenomenon; this isn’t about his campaign, but rather about the moral standards news stations must hold themselves to. CNN did a commendable job investigating and refuting its own story about Obama’s attendance of a ‘madrassa,’ while Fox made a half-hearted, token attempt to refute the same claim it made.

All this leads me to believe that we may be approaching a sort of turning point for media in general. We’re right now at a stage where partisan, opinionated media rules; this is certainly not a bad thing in itself. As long as partisan stations take the necessary steps to ensure the veracity of the facts leading to their analyses, this form of parlaying news is very effective- it fosters plenty of thought and debate.

But if things continue in the same vein, if stations continue making outright false claims, if stations start blatantly smearing politicians, then it’s time to return to the post World War II objective style of reporting. If we want to keep the current system of stations choosing sides, it’s absolutely imperative that honesty is placed on a pedestal, followed before anything else.

Today it’s a dishonest attack on Obama. Democrats may be crying ‘foul,’ but for now Republicans can chuckle. Tomorrow it might be a dishonest attack on Mitt Romney’s religion, and the process will reverse itself. American citizens, the American media, and American politicians need to understand that free speech based on faulty premises is analogous to crying ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.

Yes, the first amendment guarantees it to us; yes, writers find it essential; yes, it can check government power; yes, it’s helped us grow as a nation. But the way media outlets have been using it recently is simply not American.

3 Responses to “Free Speech and the Media”

  1. 1 Vallery

    Yes, yes, and yes again! The press is here to give the people the necessary tools to make informed decisions. Responsible journalists absolutely must ditch this trend of appealing to the emotional and the trite and focus on the real issues. It is valid to discuss the fact that we know very little about Obama, but John Gibson missed the story. Perhaps in an attempt to make it more interesting or savory, the angle became race and smoking. We must ask ourselves: Do we need this information? Does it matter? There are so many voices out there and muddying the waters with nonsense doesn’t help people understand what is going on out there. Free speech is a useful tool, but journalists must remember to whom they are loyal and to whom and for what they are stewards.

  2. 2 bysxy

    Good site!!!

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