Ukraine War’s Powerful First Amendment Lessons

As Americans, we are witnessing the horror that Russia is inflicting on Ukraine with its bloody invasion that is causing massive devastation and death throughout the country.  Ironically, the tragic events abroad also can help us gain a greater appreciation for the democratic values that we enjoy at home – values that Ukraine would like to emulate as it struggles to remain a democratic country.

That’s because the proverbial Iron Curtain has been fortified by Vladimir Putin as a barrier against the Russian people.  The populace there now is experiencing an unprecedented news and information crackdown by the government, which is shutting off outside news media and social media outlets or causing them to leave the country. 

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Consumers May Hold the Key to Confronting Election Misinformation

NewsGuard is a company created by a team of journalists who assess the credibility and transparency of news and information, including whether a website repeatedly publishes false content.

Recently, it found that 113 websites out of 7,000 reviewed were spreading election misinformation in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 presidential vote and are still active in doing so.  Of these, 81% have continued to spread false claims about the election and its aftermath, including about the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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Fifteen Days in June: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers Case

Last month, Justice Charles D. Wood of the Westchester County Supreme Court issued a controversial order blocking The New York Times from publishing or seeking various documents related to Project Veritas.  The Times had published an article on Nov. 11, 2021 that discussed the group’s journalistic practices, along with an investigation by the Department of Justice concerning the potential theft by Project Veritas of President Biden’s daughter Ashley’s diary.  The article also mentioned a separate defamation case against the Times that Project Veritas had initiated in 2020, based on coverage of a video the group had released alleging voter fraud related to the campaign of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn).

Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet commented that “[t]his ruling is unconstitutional and sets a dangerous precedent.  When a court silences journalism, it fails its citizens and undermines their right to know.  The Supreme Court made that clear in the Pentagon Papers case, a landmark ruling against prior restraint blocking the publication of newsworthy journalism.  That principle clearly applies here.  We are seeking an immediate review of this decision.”

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The Censor’s Dilemma

Pity the plight of poor Anthony Comstock.  The man H.L. Mencken described as “the Copernicus of a quite new art and science,” who literally invented the profession of anti-obscenity crusader in the waning days of the 19th century, ultimately got, as legendary comic Rodney Dangerfield would say, “no respect, no respect at all.”  

As head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and special agent for the U.S. Post Office under a law that popularly bore his name, Comstock was, in Mencken’s words, the one “who first capitalized moral endeavor like baseball or the soap business, and made himself the first of its kept professors.”

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Guardrails for Describing Fake News, Misinformation, and Disinformation

Perhaps the most distasteful national omelet we’ve been served during the past four years has been the one that has mixed together an unsavory combination of three ingredients: fake news, misinformation, and disinformation.

While many express growing concerns and look for ways to deal with them, that may be difficult – if not impossible – as long as we use these terms without any agreed-upon definitions that set useful boundaries and are easy to understand among the public at large.  The alternative is to continue repeating the mantra “fake news-misinformation- disinformation” so often that it loses meaning, or using the terms interchangeably so that they become permanently blurred in our minds.

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Why Distrust of News Needs More Sophisticated Analysis

With a start of a new year, some notable public attitudes about critical institutions seem to be on a downward trend.  These include traditional media, like newspapers, broadcast stations, and cable networks, which are often thrown together in opinion polls aimed at gaining key insight into their credibility with audiences of readers and viewers.

The Edelman Trust Barometer found only 46 percent of Americans trust traditional media.  This is the lowest number recorded since the data was first tracked two decades ago.  It found 58 percent of Americans believe that “most news organizations are more concerned with supporting one ideology or political position than with informing the public” and found over half also think that the Fourth Estate is “trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.”

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First Amendment Still Shines During Toughest of Times

Two hundred and thirty-one years ago this week, Congress passed a collection of amendments to the U.S. Constitution, 10 of which would become the Bill of Rights.  Foremost in the Bill of Rights is the First Amendment, which allows Americans to worship how they please, speak their minds openly, and have their voices heard by their government.

Our Founding Fathers, in their infinite wisdom, also included in the First Amendment the right to a free press.  They understood that our democracy could not survive without the freedom to report the news without fear or favor.  The times may have changed; that principle has not.

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Early Voting Brings New Media Challenges In Advertising and Editorial Endorsements

From shifting commercial placements to premature newspaper endorsements, this year’s early balloting procedures are having a massive effect on media operations.  Political strategists are figuring out how and more importantly when to place ads in this unprecedented season of extensive early voting. 

The Halloween weekend deluge of campaign ads just before Election Day on Nov. 3 may be meaningless if up to half of voters have already cast their ballots.  In a related vein, the ripple effect of advertising decisions also affects ad timing for down-ballot races, where voters may need more coaxing.

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Ending the Media Versus Police Tumult

Whatever happens with police reform legislation in Congress, there is no reason to expect that protection of reporters and media will figure into the proposed “best practices” of how journalists should be treated during tense and often violent situations such as we’ve seen in the past month.  Generalized protections already exist in the First Amendment, but as the brutal incidents of the past month show, law enforcement officers can recklessly bypass those enshrined barriers.

A slew of reports – some of them admittedly self-pitying – emerged in recent weeks with frightening details about how print and electronic journalists have been attacked by law enforcement officers.  It appears that sometimes reporters were singled out as they sought to cover the protests and demonstrations that erupted around the world after George Floyd’s death-by-knee in Minneapolis.

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An Independent Press: Essential to Our Democracy

We are living in challenging times for those who depend on the work of a free press.  Every day, journalists across the globe encounter censorship, harassment, and violence.  In every part of the world, authoritarian rulers are increasing their grip on the press, trying to prevent reporters from holding the powerful to account.

The Washington Post is sadly familiar with these attacks.  Our reporter Jason Rezaian was arrested and held inside Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison for 544 days, even though he had committed no crime.  We are grateful that he is now free and back at The Washington Post, where his writing often focuses on the importance of press freedom.   

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