A bridge over the canyon of distrust

don't shoot the messenger: HOW OUR GROWING HATRED OF THE MEDIA THREATENS FREE SPEECH FOR ALL OF US By Bruce Sanford Free Press 257 pp., $25

Bruce Sanford is a Washington, D.C., lawyer much beloved by journalists, who appreciate his vigorous efforts to defend them against lawsuits alleging libel, invasion of privacy, misrepresentation, trespassing, and other professional sins.

In this book, his first intended for a general audience, Sanford expresses his passion for journalists and journalism again and again.

Some journalists who revere Sanford might be in for a surprise, however, because in many sections of the book, he demonstrates that his love for the First Amendment has not blinded him to journalists' excesses.

In the early parts of the book, Sanford posits a "canyon of distrust" between journalists and many members of their audiences. In the later parts of the book, he attempts to link that distrust with litigation chipping away at the ability of journalists to do their jobs on behalf of a broader public.

There is nothing new about the "canyon of distrust" theory. But Sanford explains its origins as well as anyone ever has. Journalists are frequently perceived as lacking in accuracy, obsessed by sensationalism, arrogant, and unapologetic.

Sanford, who has worked in tandem with journalists for decades, knows those perceptions are generally inaccurate. Yet he also understands how such negative perceptions have become accepted as the conventional wisdom.

Sanford's acceptance of that canyon-wide distrust ought to be a wake-up call for the journalists who scoff at that generalization, who shrug it off by saying all institutions of influence receive low ratings in public opinion polls these days. After all, Sanford is a friend of journalism, a knowledgeable friend who has seen a lot from inside the legal system. His wake-up call cannot be dismissed out of hand by any journalists who consider themselves reflective.

As effective as the early parts of the book turn out to be, the later parts are more effective still. Stressing the "unintended consequences" flowing from public distrust of journalists, Sanford mentions lawsuit after lawsuit eroding the First Amendment protections traditionally enjoyed by reporters and editors.

Sanford has been defense attorney in some of that litigation. His insights based on his litigation experience are treasures.

Before reading this book, I regularly criticized journalists for crying the sky is falling every time they lost a lawsuit based on their normally careful information-gathering and presentation. First, I would say, journalists still win far more of these cases than they lose.

Second, I would say more shrilly, even when journalists lose at trial, they usually prevail on appeal.

Third, I would demand, let's see any hard evidence you possess that such a litigation setback has meant a chilling effect on investigative reporting. My demand is usually met with silence because evidence of a chilling effect is scarce.

After reading Sanford's book, I am less prone to criticize journalists for their sky-is-falling mentality. He marshals adverse decision after adverse decision so that it is difficult to deny an anti-journalism atmosphere among lots of juries and judges, not to mention plaintiffs.

Sanford has no intention of asking journalists to bridge the canyon of distrust by distributing bland news meant to offend nobody. No, Sanford wants journalists to continue their quest for wrongdoing. But he wants them to moderate their style while continuing to search for the guts of the story. Is a hidden camera really necessary, given what it will do to widen the canyon of distrust? Is it absolutely necessary to lie on a job application to enter an allegedly dangerous workplace, rather than documenting the dangers by submitting a factually accurate job application, then hoping any omissions will pass undetected?

"First Amendment freedoms should not depend so much on the public's approval of the press' work or on the press performing public service as on the recognition that as awful as they may behave at times, we are much better off relying on them than on government for their liberties," Sanford says.

How wise he is. Perhaps his wisdom will rub off on journalists, who will consider the negative consequences of some regularly employed information-gathering techniques and favor tempered prose over shrill sensationalism.

Perhaps Sanford's wisdom will also rub off on audience members, who even when distrusting local print media, accept the nightly TV news as gospel. Most journalists, like most professionals in any line of work, try to do a good job of informing large audiences. Shooting the messenger will do bodily harm to the very person who presents audiences with most of what they think they know about the world.

*Steve Weinberg edits the magazine Investigative Reporters & Editors at the University of Missouri Journalism School.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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