Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Ah, the First Amendment

By Mitchell

My friend Hadleyblogger Peter became yet another victim of the free press the other day.

He was appearing before a meeting of the Richfield City Council, one of many citizens speaking on a city proposal to construct a traffic roundabout in a particular area of Richfield. It was, all agreed, a situation in which the city would need to communicate the events to the public. Peter happened to point out that the means of communication the city proposed - direct mail pieces, articles in the local newspaper, PSAs on public access TV, and messages on the city's web site - might not attract people's attention.

The writer did all he could, of course, to make Peter look like a knuckle-dragging troglodyte:

"I don't tend to read the local paper, extra information in the mailbox is junk mail and I throw it away, and I don't go to the city Web site," DePalma said when Heppelmann suggested providing information through those sources.

Now, Peter's a pretty bright guy, as anyone who's read exerpts of his writing on this blog could attest. But this quote makes him not only sound kind of dumb, but also proud of it. "I didn't know you were wearing backwards baseball caps nowadays," I told him. "Or eating beef jerky." (Well, maybe I didn't actually say this to him, but the thought had crossed my mind.)

Peter had, by his own admission, used a Columbo-style irony and sarcasm, which might have been too much for the writer to comprehend. Nonetheless, he had valid points to make - how does the city intend to transmit information to the public - and equally valid reasons why that strategy might not work. As a former resident of Richfield myself, I can vouch that most people wouldn't do what the city was suggesting. Even people (like Peter) who routinely use the Internet don't check the city's website.

The larger point is how the story came out. The article, as you can tell if you check it out, is long enough that the writer didn't really need Peter's quote at all. He could have summarized Peter's thoughts, along with other citizens, as a concern that the city didn't take adequate steps to disseminate the information. But, although you might second-guess the writer's strategy, there were nonetheless a few standard journalistic tools he could (and should) have used. For example, as Peter pointed out, the sentence that appears in the paper was not what he said. That is, bits and pieces of a couple of sentences were cobbled together to make it sound as if Peter had said what he said all in one phrase. In fact, Peter assures me, this was not the case. Where, in that case, were the ellipses, the tool that every writer uses to show that he's removing a portion of a sentence or combining two sentences together to form one? The ellipse is a valuable way of indicating to the reader that the phrase being read should not be taken as an all-inclusive rendition of the speaker's thoughts. So what the writer really did was craft a quotation that was intended to represent Peter's thoughts. Fine, if you have to do that; but don't pretend that it's a direct quote.

And then there's the newspaper itself.

Now, I have to admit that to a certain extent I have a dog in this fight; for when I ran for the state legislature from Richfield, I had to deal with that Richfield Sun Current (there are Sun Current newspapers all over Minnesota, each carrying certain boilerplate information along with a healthy dose of local news, events, and editorials). In general, I considered the Richfield Sun Current to be unfit for use in a cat's litter box. During my campaign, this particular Sun Current paper:

1) Refused to accept letters to the editor from candidates;

2) Limited the time frame in which letters (from anyone) regarding the campaign could be submitted (and required them to state that the letter hadn't been written by any committee or individual other than the person signing the letter); and

3) Restricted the times in which political ads could be run.

Now, you could have argued that some of these weren't bad ideas in and of themselves (like parts of McCain-Feingold, I suppose; it can't all be bad), but as a newspaper policy it stank to high heaven. As far as I know, it was the only paper in the area with such a restrictive policy, and the really funny thing about it was that it was only in effect the year I ran for office. Never before, never after. And, as far as I know, none of the other Sun Currents followed this practice. Other candidates I talked with couldn't believe any paper would set such a policy. (They didn't even endorse candidates that year, another one-time phenomenon, and Judie always said it was because they couldn't bear to endorse me, but couldn't justify endorsing my opponent.)

Newspapers constantly harp about freedom of the press, but these policies hardly seemed to represent any true freedom of thought. Restricting the subject matter of letters to the editor; or preventing candidates from expressing their own thoughts via that same medium. I'm not saying they didn't have the right to do it; that I don't know. (Although I do seem to recall one of the Sun Current papers getting in trouble with the Minnesota News Council a few years ago over their policies.)

No, what really got me was this liberal elitist attitude that "we know what's good for the readers," that there somehow needed to be a filter to protect the innocent peruser of the paper from some kind of dastardly plot by an evil candidate. In trumpeting freedom of the press, the press most often winds up becoming a self-proclaimed arbiter of what the public should or shouldn't know. To my way of thinking, that's a one-way freedom - power without responsibility.

And the MSM wonders why the blogosphere exists at all.

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