When the Press Opposes Free Speech


“Dissent Under Fire


The U.S.-led war on Iraq has been accompanied by assaults on free speech in the homeland. The attempt to label anyone who disagrees with the war as ‘unpatriotic’ is predictable, but no less disturbing.”


--Opening paragraph of the lead editorial of the San Francisco Chronicle, March 22, 2003

commentary by John McManus


The very last place you might expect an assault on free speech would be in a newspaper. Of all enterprises, the press is the most dependent on the protection of the First Amendment.


But just 11 days after this editorial was published, top editors at the Chronicle imposed a blanket prohibition on any newsroom staff member publicly taking a political position on the war with Iraq—the most pressing national political issue of the day.


Deputy Editor Narda Zacchino, Vice President and Managing Editor Robert Rosenthal, and Executive Editor and Vice President Phil Bronstein, wrote:


Our responsibility as journalists can only be met by a strict prohibition against any newsroom staffer participating in any public political activity related to the war.


In practice, this means everyone in the newsroom--from copy clerks to sports writers, editors, even a technology columnist—loses the normal citizen’s right on his or her own time to influence the public mind about the war in Iraq.  No political contributions, no participation in a demonstration for or against, no bumper stickers on the family car, no window or lawn signs.


Is such a sweeping prohibition of free speech consistent with the core values of journalism?


Not so fast


Before accusing Chronicle executives of hypocrisy, however, consider this:  If journalists are—or even appear to be--affiliated with one side of any controversy, the newspaper risks its credibility with readers on the other side. Even discerning readers on the same side.


To be successful in either public service or as a business, a news organization must be seen as impartial—on nobody’s side but the public’s--on its news pages. Editorial pages are another matter; opinion is expected there.


Core values colliding


What’s happening at the Chronicle now is a collision between two of the most cherished and foundational values of journalism: free speech on the one hand and independence—freedom from real or apparent conflict of interest, on the other.


But when two core values are in conflict, is the complete subordination of one to the other the only choice?


Testing the logic of a blanket prohibition


Let’s try a thought experiment.


Suppose a Chronicle staffer were an ardent opponent of the war in Iraq. He believed it was morally irresponsible not to take a public stand. Let’s say he attended peace rallies, even engaged in non-violent civil disobedience that led to his arrest.


Such a person clearly has very strong feelings and they are likely to get stronger both by the actions undertaken and association with others of like mind.


Clearly, such a journalist would face a serious conflict between these strong attitudes and impartial reporting about the justness of this war.


Even if our hypothetical journalist were able to compartmentalize those beliefs and ask as tough questions of those on one side of the war issue as another, people who knew the journalist’s strong personal bias could be forgiven for fearing it would show up in print.


Whether the journalist’s strong opinions actually biased his reporting, or the public merely mistrusted it knowing those feelings, the newspaper that allowed such a conflict would be jeopardizing its public credibility. By allowing unrestricted freedom of political speech, it would undermine its journalistic mission.


What if the reporter isn’t covering war-related issues?


But now suppose that instead of covering an issue directly related to the war, the same journalist writes about sports, education, science, real estate, wine, restaurants, or perhaps personal digital technology. Or suppose she is a copy editor—guiding other people’s reports through the perilous shoals of grammar, style and punctuation. Or suppose he is a copy clerk.


Would you trust a report about the Giants, or the college football draft, written by an opponent of the war with Iraq? Would you trust a comparison of a Mac and a PC written by such a journalist?


Does it make sense to deprive everyone in the newsroom of their freedom of political speech regardless of the degree of overlap between their feelings about this war and the topics they cover?


Ideologically cleansing the newsroom


Is such a sweeping policy likely to drive away from journalism those with civic passion?


If the Iraq war is the subject of prohibition today, will other public controversies be off limits across the newsroom tomorrow? Perhaps too strong an environmental sensitivity, issues of women’s choice and abortion, gay and lesbian rights?


Compromises are possible


There are examples of careful balancing of core rights the press could adopt as models. The United States Supreme Court, for example, routinely strikes down challenges to free speech as “overbroad”—prohibiting more freedom of expression than is necessary to accomplish legitimate social purposes.


Libel law specifically protects the right of news media, among others, to speak unpopular truths to power. To ensure robust political debate, the court has tipped the playing field against politicians and public persons, making it harder for them to punish the press, even when a report is factually wrong and injures the public person’s reputation.


One might hope the press itself would take similar care to forbid no more of its journalists’ rights as citizens than absolutely necessary to preserve its independence.


As the March 22 Chronicle put it, concluding its editorial: “The ability to disagree, especially on something as critical as whether initiating a war is in our nation’s best interest, is a measure of a healthy democracy. Regrettably, it’s under stress right now.”


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