Fifty years before the Bill of Rights, a German immigrant had his day in court.
In 1735, newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger was accused of writing unfavorably about the New York colonial government. Zenger won his case, because his reporting – though politically unpopular – was true.
The Zenger case laid the groundwork for the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press.
Today, some Americans believe that freedom is under attack from within their own government. On Sunday, the group Lansing Indivisible will hold a rally at the state Capitol in support of the First Amendment.
One of the event’s speakers is Michigan State University journalism professor Sue Carter.
WKAR’s Kevin Lavery spoke with Carter about this basic constitutional right. He started off by asking her to read the First Amendment out loud.
Dr. Sue Carter:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the right of people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
“The First Amendment itself does not spell out the responsibilities of a free press. For the last 200-plus years, the industry has been faced with self-policing, court cases; the American media prides itself on not being an overtly governmentally-regulated entity.”
“Good point. We do not license journalists in this country; that happens in a number of other countries around the world, and self-policing is an important part of what we do. There was recently a bill introduced in the Indiana legislature to license journalists. (It was) somewhat mocking; apparently the author of the bill felt that if we have to license people under the Second Amendment, we should also license them under the First Amendment. That’s hogwash. But that kind of posture starts to erode. So we need to protect the absolute freedom of journalists to be unlicensed in this country, trust that the public forum will indeed help us make the kind of judgments and corrections that need to be (made). So, it means that we need to be responsible. That’s a challenge right now, when we have a multi-platform world in front of us.”
“What do some of your students at Michigan State University say about the climate in our federal government towards the press right now?”
“Well, they’re keenly aware of all of the claims of ‘fake news.’ And what we try to do is give them a sense of media literacy so that they can make judgments as budding reporters going forward. Well-resourced material, material that is reliable and material that’s fake, because there’s a lot of disinformation flooding our system at the moment.”
“In your mind, what really is the standard for legitimate news? How do you make 150% certain that something is not fake?”
“I’m not sure I can ever get to 150 percent, although I like that figure! I think for the average citizen, it’s important to look at the source of the information. Is it a legitimate, funded news organization that has long standing? I think that’s test number one. In looking at, in reading, in listening to that news, is that item well-sourced from trusted individuals or trusted organizations? What concerns me, among other things right now, is that there are agencies working on disinformation and feeding what appears to be legitimate news to talented, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters. And it looks, tastes, smells, feels like it’s a good bit of information, but in fact it has been so carefully constructed – non-factual – to look legitimate, that it’s easy to get taken in.”
“Can you think of a specific example recently of this?”
“I think there were reporters at CNN in the last several months who got bit by it.”
“What do you hope will be the takeaway from this rally on Sunday?”
“That people will understand that there is not only a legitimate, but a very important role for a free press in our society; that more information is obviously better than less. Unless we operate with the open marketplace of ideas, we won’t have all the news we need to make those informed decisions. And also, we need to make sure that local and grassroots events and government meetings are covered. I would submit that a lot of activity takes place at a local planning board. We’ve seen it here in our community. And if that information isn’t available, if people don’t know what various boards and commissions and governmental groups are doing, then we don’t know how our lives are being affected. So, making sure we have the resources to have the coverage for local events is really critical.”