Column: Are people to get the news by official decree?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Paul K. McMasters, First Amendment

When government officials assume that the power to make the news confers the right to define, distribute or dictate the news, they threaten to fling the democratic process into a tailspin.

Yet too often we find those in elected or appointed positions who claim the authority to decide whether you should have more or less of certain information, and to punish or regulate those in the press or public service who offend their idea of what is news and how it should be delivered.

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In Moscow last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice deplored the state of press independence in Russia, where a prominent journalist was assassinated recently and where the press is routinely threatened and punished. Ironically, here at home many recent developments and policies raise serious questions about freedom and independence for our press.

The latest survey of global press freedoms, released last week by Reporters Without Borders, shows the United States falling another nine places since the previous year to 53rd, tying with Botswana, Croatia and Tonga. Cited as part of the reason for the steady decline in the rankings was the sharp tension between the Bush administration and the press that has developed since 9/11 and the federal courts&8217; refusal to recognize a reporter&8217;s right to protect confidential sources.

But there is much more than that going on that should test our complacency about the democratic role of an independent press and an informed citizenry. Aside from punishing or threatening the press, our government seems increasingly bent on interfering with newsgathering and newsroom decision-making, propagandizing the public and suppressing inconvenient facts.

Punishment and threats: The Justice Department is investigating leaks that led to major news articles about controversial government policies and operations. Federal courts have sent one reporter to jail in California for refusing to give up videotape to prosecutors; two others are headed to prison for refusing to give up confidential sources. Three members of Congress, infuriated when CNN aired video of insurgent snipers firing on U.S. troops, wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, demanding that he remove CNN correspondents from the military embedding program in Iraq.

Interference with news operations: The Federal Communications Commission has launched an investigation into how television stations use corporate video news releases and whether such material is properly identified in their reporting. The Radio-Television News Directors Association asked the FCC to halt its probe, saying that &8220;these decisions must remain far removed from government involvement or supervision.&8221;

Suppressing inconvenient facts: Political appointees at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are under investigation into whether they kept scientists from reporting their findings about global warming to the public.

Perhaps more troubling than these relatively well-publicized developments are the quiet but increasing efforts by the federal government to present its own brand of &8220;news&8221; directly to the American people. Among them: paying supposedly independent commentators to covertly tout official programs, issuing government video news releases, and massaging scientific information for political reasons.

Voicing concern earlier this year about terrorist interests &8220;manipulating the media,&8221; Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said, &8220;That keeps me up at night.&8221; Apparently, Pentagon officials have no concerns about manipulating the media themselves.

The Associated Press recently obtained a Pentagon memo outlining a new public-relations offensive in the United States to counter criticism of the Iraq war. The campaign will beef up the public-relations staff, assign teams to &8220;develop messages&8221; and &8220;correct the record,&8221; designate high-level political and military people and interest groups to appear on talk shows, and devote more resources to &8220;new media&8221; (Internet, blogs, etc.). Recently, a Pentagon investigation concluded that its multimillion-dollar contract with a public-relations firm to place friendly articles in the Iraqi press was legal.

Standing alone, each of these developments presents an alarming assault on free speech, press and the public&8217;s right to know. Taken together, they form a much more troubling pattern of disdain by some of our leaders for our First Amendment rights and values.

The more such thinking turns into accepted practices, the less democracy is allowed to function as it was intended. Government officials form and implement policies, but citizens judge them.

They cannot do so without full, credible information from independent sources.

Such matters as recounted here are better left to newsroom judgment and the wisdom and understanding of the American public. Once the First Amendment barricade protecting press independence and credibility is breached, there is no holding back officials who believe themselves the sole or primary authority on what you need to know.

(Paul K. McMasters is First Amendment ombudsman at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA. 22209. E-mail: