First Amendment Stress-Test

SUPPORT for press privilege has ebbed in [the past] 20 years. In part, this is because the First Amendment has been stretched to cover a variety of activities that do not enjoy public approval.

We have recently witnessed campaigns against violence and pornography on television, against ''gangsta'' rap records, against exploitative talk shows. All of these enjoy First Amendment protection, but stretching the First Amendment to shield activities regarded as antisocial only weakens support for the First Amendment.

By the age of 18, according to the National Coalition on Television Violence, the average American will have seen 200,000 acts of violence, including 40,000 murders. All protected by the First Amendment. According to USA Today, of 43 sex scenes counted in a sample television week, only four involved married couples; 39 involved adulterers or unmarried persons. Television is on a collision course not only with those concerned about religious values, but those more generally concerned about children and about the level of taste in America.

The ''press'' has become absorbed into ''the news media,'' which, in turn, are being absorbed into mega-media conglomerates. Will ABC investigate Disney? Will Fox investigate Murdoch and Gingrich?

Look at this example of potential conflict of interest. At the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in San Diego, medical researchers of the University of California in San Francisco [reported] on what happened to the popular schoolchildren's weekly, The Weekly Reader, after it was bought by a subsidiary of RJR Nabisco, maker of Camel cigarettes. Whereas the Weekly's tobacco-related articles previously presented a consistently antismoking message, now the ''presentation of the issue was significantly more consonant with the messages the industry likes to send.'' And Joe Camel made frequent appearances, in one case in a full-page color cover picture. The First Amendment protects that, too.

What has happened, meanwhile, to the public perception of the journalist? The image of the underpaid reporter with the press card in his greasy hatband is pretty well gone, and the newspaper he worked for is going. The news-media figure today is a blow-dried million-dollar anchorperson, more celebrated than the celebrities he or she covers. The public tends to view the news media as arrogant, insensitive, and self-serving.

Given the contemporary situation, how does a press whose motives and dedication to the public weal are suspect go about restoring public support for our ''privilege''?

One possible direction has been outlined by my friend, Ellen Hume, in a study for the Annenberg communications program of the impact of technology on journalism. She finds that ''the apparently endless flow of scandals ... has damaged rather than enhanced journalism's credibility.'' The objective now, she says, must be to use new technologies to create ''a trustworthy product.'' The smart new journalism will be interactive and proactive, opening the door for citizen engagement.

I may be too old to grasp what lies ahead in a new interactive journalism. I can only surmise that anything that helps to restore public confidence in the disseminators of information will help to restore public support for the constitutional guarantee of the freedom of the press. The men who crafted that guarantee to shield the writers of political polemics from retaliation by Congress could not have dreamed what a vast industry their brief amendment would end up shielding. But it is still, perhaps more than ever, worth fighting to protect.

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