United States

UNITED STATES The bicentenary of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution this December 15 will not be celebrated with unbridled joy. The reason: press freedom is under attack in the United States. Jane E. Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, reports that the U.S. news media are still besieged by subpoenas. There has been no let-up since the committtee documented 4,408 subpoenas served on 1,042 news organizations in 1989, and Ms. Kirtley says that she believes this trend is worsening. The committees' next report in an ongoing five-year study will be in 1992, but so far the stUdy indicates that the press is being used by lawyers and investigators to secure evidence for court cases. As one Florida newspaper complained, "subpoenas are often simply a means that lawyers use to get newspapers to do their legwork for them." On top of this worsening trend and despite the shield laws in a few states, the media are also facing a dramatic increase in large libel awards. The Libel Defense Resource Center has just released the details of a stUdy covering two years ending December 31, 1990, which shows that compared with the previOUS two years the average damage award against media defendants increased ten-fold. The average award for 1989-90 was just under $4.5 million, compared with almost half a million dollars in 1987-88. These two studies indicate that the unfavorable trend in litigation in regard to press freedom began before the severe censorship during the Gulf War. In the aftermath of the draconian restrictions on the press, leading news media groups have been mobilizing to fight the Pentagon over this issue. Last month Defense Secretary Dick Cheney met with a group of leading media representatives to develop different ground rules for coverage of future military operations. The media will not accept unilateral decision-making by the Pentagon as was the case following the Grenada and Panama invasions. Louis D. Boccardi, president and chief executive officer of the Associated Press, said that this time two-sided discussions with the Pentagon "to avoid next time what happened this time." Ten principles that the media will insist upon to ensure independent reporting and to bar prior review of reportage have been outlined to the Pentagon and a deadline for an agreement has been set for February. There is no clear evidence that the Pentagon's successful management of the news during the Gulf War encouraged other branches of government to devise measures to restrict press freedom. Yet the undoubted popularity of the limitations forced upon the media by the Pentagon has reinforced a pattern of anti-press actions by the government. An editorial in the summer issue of The News Media and the Law, published by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Charges the Supreme Court with continuing "its gradual but inexorable erosion of journalists' rights." This allegation was substantiated specifically by two cases heard during the 1990 term, Masson v. The New Yorker and Cohen v. Cowles Media. Neither case showed exemplary conduct by the media. Jeffrey Masson alleged that a New Yorker writer fabricated quotations attributed to him, and Dan Cohen sued two Minnesota newspapers for printing his name despite a promise of confidentiality from their reporters. The Reporters Committee journal sald that the Court's rulings in these cases are "a short slide from penalizing conduct to censoring speech." The Reporters Committee also viewed with concern the appointment of Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, describing the new associate justice's record on media law issues as '(murky." The sensational Senate hearings on Judge Thomas' nomination also prompted some soul searching by members of the press. A.M. Rosenthal, who retired as executive editor of The New York Times and now writes a column for the Times, angrily denounced mainstream editors and publishers for publicizing and glamorizing" garbage pail" journalism. In the case of Judge Thomas, Rosenthal charged that "many publications" are themselves guilty of "sexual harassment." Rosenthal wrote: "Spare me the First Amendment lecture. I know harassment by press is within the law. I agree the Constitution is worth the price. So we have freedom of press. Now all that journalists need is freedom of conscience." Another attack by a member of the press on media coverage of Thomas' nomination was widely publiclzed by two Republican senators, Orrin Hatch and Arlen Spector. Juan Williams, a writer for the Washington Post, charged in an op-ed article that "reputable news organizations, notably National Public Radio ... have magnified every question about Thomas into an indictment, and sacrificed journalistic balance and integrity for a place in the mob." Williams' complaint about the "blood-in-thewater" behavior of the press, was, however, blunted by the fact that he, himself, has been accused of sexual harassment by Post colleagues. Nina Totenberg, who is legal correspondent for National Public Radio, also found herself involved in the controversy over allegations that Judge Thomas sexually harassed Professor Anita Hill. Ms. Totenberg alleged in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that she gave up her job with The National Observer because of sexual harassment, but her former editor responded that she was fired for plagarism. Other developments of note: -Linda Wheeler of The Washington Post, who had been sentenced to jail for contempt of court because she refused to reveal a source has had the citation lifted after a judge declared a mistrial. However, a new trial has been ordered. A federal Circuit Court judge in South Carolina ruled that a criminal libel law was unconstitutional. Now, only 20 out of 50 u.S. states still have criminal libel laws on their books. -The Globe, a supermarket tabloid in Boca Raton, Florida, was charged with two dismeanor counts of violating a state law prohibiting the publication of a rape victim's name. A number of other media organizations based outside Florida also published her name without provoking legal action. -Concern has been expressed by editors and publishers over the Federal Appeals Court ru1ing that will allow the "Baby Bells" to use their monopoly over local telephone lines to transmit information to their subscribers.