Protecting the public's right to know

The First Amendment belongs to every American, and many of the press's current problems stem from failure to make the public aware of this. That was the consensus view of politicians, press critics, pollsters, and civil libertarians who met here for two days last week in a "First Amendment Congress" to discuss what organizers see as the "whittling away" of the public's right to know.

"The public and the press are on the same side," asserted Jean H. Otto, a Milwaukee Journal editor. President of the Society of Professional Journalists, she headed the 12- organization committee that arranged the congress. "We can't do what's required of us without [public] support. We're in this together."

While journalists complain about closed courtrooms, demands to reveal confidential sources, and restrictive libel laws, many speakers agreed that they have failed to show the public how these matters affect everyone.

"We've done a very poor job over the years in showing that the First Amendment is not a special privilege for journalists," said CBS-TV reporter Dan Rather. "It's a citizen's right, not a journalist's right."

Pollster George Gallup Jr.'s figures back him up. His latest survey shows that only 24 percent of Americans know what the First Amendment is or what it deals with. Dr. Gallup sees "a great deal of good will" toward the press; it is high among occupations rated on "honesty and ethical standards" and a top career choice. But he added that teachers and journalists should help "sensitize Americans to the vital importance of the First Amendment" as part of an effort to spark more awareness of and involvement in the political process.

New Orleans Mayor Ernest Morial called it "pretentious of the press to view itself as the sole, legitimate arbiter of the public interest." The press has, in his view, assumed a "self-appointed role" as the people's guardian and spokesman. That was never the Founding Father's intention when they drafted the First Amendment, he claimed.

The mayor agreed with Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R) of New Jersey that the press is not living up to its responsibilities. so long as the media continue their "inadequate performance," said the mayor, they will continue to face judicial restrictions.

Two press critics urged journalists to see their own rights as part of a constitutional whole.

"The First Amendment is not the totality of the Bill of Rights," said A. H. Raskin, associate director of the National News Council, which monitors media performance in the United States. The press must be equally concerned with every infringement of constitutional rights, he maintained. "We ought to be setting standards," he said. "If we don't, the government will move into that vacuum. But quite aside from that, we should do it because it's the right thing to do."

Charles Seib, the Washington Post's associate editor and in-house critic, whose media column is syndicated in 45 newspapers, said the public is alienated from the press because of "our posture of infallibility. We don't level with the public about how we function."

Mr. Seib said the press must "take the public into its confidence, and clean up the messes we inevitably make" by explaining and correcting errors.

Two legal experts see the press preoccupied with asserting its own rights to the exclusion of others' rights. Jerome A. Barron, dean of the National Law Center at George Washington University, said journalists will have to pay more attention to infringements of privacy and damage to reputation if they wish to avoid more legal constraints. He called the press more "eloquent and valiant" in defending its own privacy and free expression rights than in backing others' claims to those same standards.

Contrary to prevailing journalistic opinion, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis contended that the press is not being deprived on its traditional rights by the US Supreme Court. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner said reporters have more legally defined rights today than ever before, but cautioned against total dependence on them.

"The safety of the press," Mr. Lewis said, "does not lie in special treatment. The fate of journalism will be determined less by the sympathy of judges" than by reporters' own performance. "Absolute rights cannot exist in the real world," he said.

Some 150 of the 250 delegates to the First Amendment Congress will meet in Williamsburg, Va., March 16-18 to discuss how to deal with the problems and concerns that emerged here.

In another recent forum in Boston, Jack Landau, founder and director of the Washington-based Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press, accused judges of "absolutely vetoing the First Amendment" when other interests arise. Mr. Landau told New England Press Association members to "fight back with every tool at our disposal" when judges close courtroom proceedings.

But New Hampshire Supreme Court Justice Charles Douglas told the group that reporters and judges must "either work together or continue a warfare that is counterproductive to all of us." He said the media and its audience gain from compromises which guarantee defendant's fair trial rights while releasing information necessary for public understanding. First Amendment 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 the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

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