By Rusty Rae • Of the News-Register • 

Protecting freedom of press preserves freedom of nation

A 1960 advertisement in The New York Times sought donations to help pay Martin Luther King Jr.’s legal costs. A subsequent defamation lawsuit led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark New York Times v. Sullivan decision.
A 1960 advertisement in The New York Times sought donations to help pay Martin Luther King Jr.’s legal costs. A subsequent defamation lawsuit led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark New York Times v. Sullivan decision.

What does it mean to us living here in Yamhill County to have a free press?

Let’s look at a quote from the late Madeleine Albright, who served as secretary of state for our country: “The temptation is powerful to close our eyes and wait for the worst to pass, but history tells that for freedom to survive, it must be defended, and that if lies are to stop, they must be exposed.”

The Heart of Competition

Rusty Rae Guest writer Rusty Rae is an award- winning editor, photojournalist and photo educator. Holder of a bachelor’s from Linfield and MBA from the University of Washington, he first worked for the N-R out of college. He returned six years ago, serving as sports editor, a staff photojournalist and associate editor of the ancillary publication Old Stuff. He’s traveled extensively in the U.S. and abroad. He and his wife, Sheila, reside in Mac with their Welsh terrier, Jack.

The Founding Fathers were so sure the press must remain unencumbered by government censorship for the nation to remain free that they included the press in the First Amendment to the Constitution. 

The first 10 amendments, ratified in 1791, are known as the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment includes the following: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press … “

It seems obvious, but bears review: Freedom comes with responsibilities.

Newspapers shed light in the darkest corners with balanced, fact-based reporting of the life of a community.

We live and die by those rules of fairness of reporting. If a reportage mistake is made, we correct it as soon as we are aware.

Newspapers comment on the facts in opinion pieces called editorials, which include a point of view. Editorials are designed to encourage thought and debate.

An editorial is, by its very nature, biased. It reflects an opinion that some may accept and others reject.

That goes a step beyond a column — for example, from the sports editor, reflecting the writer’s perspective on a game, on a telling play or a player’s contribution to the outcome.

Ultimately, an editorial is designed to be that light that gets to the heart of an issue. It reflects a point of view designed to open minds and help frame debate on important issues.

Our community here in Yamhill County is comparatively small, yet that light is no less important than the light shown by newspapers such as The New York Times.

Over the years, freedom of the press has been expanded to include first news from the radio and later television. And television today is no longer just the big three network players of the 1950s — ABC, CBS and NBC — but an alphabet soup of cable channels, many with their own news organizations.

Today we also include much of internet-based social media as part of “the press” as well. By social media, we mean websites and the ubiquitous Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al.

The problem is that anyone with access to the World Wide Web can now be a reporter, whether or not they understand, or care about, the rules of honest journalistic reporting. Truth and fairness seem to have gone out the window with many of these so-called 24-7 “news” purveyors.

A prominent recent libel case highlights the standards the media needs to meet under our system of government to ensure it doesn’t cross a line established in constitutional law.

Back in mid-February, a libel suit brought against The New York Times by Sarah Palin, a former Alaska governor turned vice-presidential candidate, was thrown out by U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff. Rakoff said Palin and her legal team had failed to reach the high standard required for a public figure to make a valid case.

While the Palin case has little to do with us here in Yamhill County, it does give us a chance to explore a wider issue — the need for newspapers to be free to criticize public figures without fear of reprisal, thus shining a light in corners of darkness.

Let’s take a trip in the wayback machine to understand the underpinnings of the current law and why Palin’s suit didn’t pass judicial muster.

For those too young to remember, the 1960s were a time of tumult in the United States, not unlike today in many ways.

In the South, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement. But King was targeted by Southern officials, who variously arrested him for speeding, loitering and such. He was even charged with perjury in his filing of a state income tax document.

In March of 1960, The New York Times carried a paid ad headlined “Heed Their Rising Voices” that sought donations for King’s defense team.

The ad told of the trials and tribulations of King and his followers in the South. In one paragraph, it called out the police in Montgomery, Alabama, for their treatment of peaceful student protesters.

The ad was marred by several inaccuracies, including the songs protesters sang, the number of times King had been arrested, and whether students had been expelled for protest actions.

Based on the inaccuracies, Montgomery Police Commissioner L.B. Sullivan asked the Times for a retraction. When the Times refused, Sullivan sued for defamation in a local court.

The judge ruled the inaccuracies were defamatory, and the jury returned a judgment of $500,000 against the newspaper. The Times appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, which ratified the lower court decision, and then on the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned it in a unanimous ruling.

It took four years for the legal process to play out, but by a 9-0 count, the Supreme Court said the lower court rulings violated the paper’s First Amendment rights. Given the protections afforded in the First Amendment, the justices ruled, any public official suing for defamation must prove the defendant made the defamatory statement with “actual malice.”

The court made proving libel subject to two further provisions as well: The defamatory statement must actually target the official, not just governmental policy, and that official must carry the burden of proving its falsity.

The court’s interpretation of the First Amendment protection focused on what it termed the “breathing space” required by the First Amendment for full and complete deliberation. It noted, “Erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate, and ... must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the breathing space that they need ... to survive.”

The Palin case arose from an editorial the Times published in June 2017.

The editorial cited an incident in which a man with a history of anti-GOP activity shot up a congressional baseball team’s practice session, wounding Republican Congressman Steve Scalise of Louisiana and four others. The editorial blamed zealous political rhetoric for the shooting.

Writing under deadline pressure the night of the shooting, then Editorial Page Editor James Bennet, hyper-focused on driving the point home and strike a note of public censure for the ready availability of both guns and incendiary rhetoric in our culture, added a sentence referencing the mass shooting six years earlier in which U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords was severely wounded.

Bennet said the “link to political incitement was clear” between that shooting and an earlier Palin campaign ad arraying crosshairs from the scope of a gun over targeted Democratic congressional districts, including Gifford’s Arizona district.

Unfortunately, Bennet never fact-checked his memory to see what the ad had actually said — a breach in process, but perhaps understandable given the duress he faced under deadline pressure.

Keep in mind, the print run for the New York Times was nearly 350,000 copies, and that takes more than four hours. In such a scenario, you simply can’t be late.

There were no facts tying the shooter to the Palin ad, only an inference on Bennet’s part. Adding insult to injury, the editorial was guilty of misrepresentation in saying the crosshairs were placed over the lawmakers, when it was actually their districts.

The Times published a correction the next day. When Palin sued anyway, its legal team termed the misrepresentation nothing more than an honest mistake that had been made under deadline pressure and promptly set it right.

Palin’s defense team could not offer any proof that Bennet acted out of malice or had a political ax to grind with Palin. And on those grounds, the case ended up getting thrown out.

A free press — be it the News-Register serving Yamhill County, the Oregonian serving the Portland Metro Area and environs, or The New York Times serving the whole country — must be given largely unfettered ability to report the news of the day. It must also be given the freedom to editorialize on government officials and their actions without fear of potentially ruinous reprisals.

As a matter of perspective, consider what is happening in the Federation of Russia today.

There is no free press in the Russian autocracy. Journalists are not allowed to shine the light of truth into dark corners, and that includes casting any doubts on the lies used to justify waging war on neighboring Ukraine.

If we are to remain free, our press must remain free. A free press is one of the cornerstones of freedom in our community and our nation.

Comments

BigfootLives

Your argument that the editorial wasn’t properly fact checked because of the pending deadline is ludicrous, with freedom comes responsibility. If my home is robbed and my handgun is stolen because I left it on the coffee table I could be held liable, criminally and civilly, for not storing the weapon properly. I doubt the judge would let me argue that I was late for work and did not have the time to properly store it locked in the safe.

“Correction: June 15, 2017
An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that a link existed between political incitement and the 2011 shooting of Representative Gabby Gifford. In fact, no such link was established.”

No mention in the retraction of linking Sarah Palin by name as they had in the editorial, but even if they had mentioned Palin, the damage is done. Using the NY Times editorial the main stream alphabet stations run with it and the drumbeat starts, and it was linked to, and blamed on, Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and President Trump and others, repeated ad nauseam.

The last two years have shown that freedom of speech is under attack, but by the very people who stand behind its protection. For example, the censorship of any information that did not align with ‘science’ regarding covid, masking, or lockdowns was blatant, with the main stream media taking the lead. Throw in the Hunter Biden laptop, which was recently reluctantly verified by the media, and the Russian collusion pushed for 5 years that is now resulting in indictments and fines to the perpetrators.

Do you think that the NY Times and Washington Post should return the Pulitzer’s they won for the phony Russian collusion story?

With all due respect, the mainstream media in this country has lost all credibility. You stated that the problem is that anyone with access to the internet can now be a reporter. That’s only a problem for the mainstream media ‘reporters’.

Angela Flood

In Oregon, defamation is not a crime when committed by a government official towards a private person. It does not matter if it was done with malice or not. The private party defamed has no expectation of justice.

In Lafayette, City Administrator Preston Polasek defamed me, with malice, in an effort to stop my reporting of government issues and inquiries of city projects and finances. His plan worked. The statements made about me were so heinous, I was completely intimidated. I wondered if these were the kind of tactics they were now using, how much more dangerous could things get for me? He was unhinged and I feared for my own safety.

I appealed to the council to have the statements retracted. Not only would they not respond to my request, they consistently rewarded him with bonus after bonus for accomplishing their bidding.

If media is held to a standard in regards to public officials, those officials should be held to the same standards. But, in Oregon, those officials can make whatever statements they want and there is no recourse for those harmed. This is important to point out to people who assume their statements are truthful.

suburban

Angela, that is correct. Its really sad that there have been previous malicious attempts to literally destroy people right here in Yamhill County that went completely unpunished for the very reason you state. It is so sad and the law needs to be changed. Unfortunately it is the legislature that needs to change that law, and of course that won't happen because - guess what - they would all be held accountable.

RobsNewsRegister

Much of the press has long since lost credibility in the matter of free speech in my eyes as they support the current suppression of political speech in the community forums of our day (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, ...). It is so rampant a billionaire (Elon Musk) just stepped in to turn the tide. We'll see if he has any success.

https://nypost.com/2022/04/04/elon-musk-buys-9-stake-in-twitter-days-after-criticizing-it/

sbagwell

Rob: The "press" consists of thousands of newspapers, thousands of television stations and cable channels, thousands of radio stations, at least hundreds of magazines and a vast array of websites, newsletters, blogs and other vehicles of collective expression. I am aware of no wave of support among this massive collection of outlets for Facebook or Twitter throttling. If you are, could you please point to some examples?
And just for the record, Facebook and Twitter are private, for-profit corprorate entities, thus operating virtually unfettered in our capitalistic free-enterprise system. They do not have to take any action based on government, public or media supplication. They are free to do darn well what they please. In fact, our constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, gives Facebook, Twitter and other corporations every right granted to individual citizens.
Censorship is, by definition, a restriction imposed by government. But like the News-Register and every other media entity, Facebook and Twitter are free 100% on their own what to publish and not publish.
So how is it that "the press" is somehow responsible for decisions two Fortune 500 corporations, beholden to no one, have made all on their own?
Balderdash!
Steve

RobsNewsRegister

Steve,
Large news organizations in America do in many ways support censorship. It is one reason I am very wary of anything from the NYT or WAPO - I don't trust them to give me the full story.

https://nypost.com/2022/03/21/the-nyt-finally-discovers-free-speech-after-years-calling-for-big-tech-censorship/

There are countless examples of BIG-TECH censorship. See database in the link below. As those on the Left rarely find themselves victims of it, they may not be aware of its rampant prevalence though there are many voices from the Left that rail against censorship (one of my favorites is Russell Brand).

https://censortrack.org/

I am well of the fact the BIG-TECH are corporations but believe that Facebook & Twitter control such huge market shares that their political censorship and presidential election interference (e.g. censoring Hunter Biden laptop NYPost story before the election) are unacceptable. Conservatives were told for years if they didn't like it they were free to create their own company. They tried (Parler) and BIG-Tech companies colluded to shut it down when Parler became the number one newly downloaded APP. I believe Big-Tech companies are clearly 'editing' content, so are now publishers, and should no longer enjoy the section 230 amnesty they currently have but am not a lawyer.

https://libertyblock.com/breaking-big-tech-colludes-to-kill-parler/

My problem with our current press and journalists of our day is that they should be spearheading the fight for free speech and debate in the public squares, even speech for which they profoundly disagree. But alas, even in their industry, the assault on speech is so bad independent forums have popped up so journalists themselves can freely write. See link to Substack below where independent journalists like Glenn Greenwald can write without censor. Much of the media's silence regarding censorship is deafening.
https://substack.com/

sbagwell

Every news outlet makes its own decisions on what to publish or not publish, along with when and how, what meets its standards of fact, taste, newsworthiness and so forth. That's simply the exercise of news judgement. And it's a right guaranteed in the First Amendment.
That is NOT censorship. Censorship is, by its very definition, GOVERNMENT imposition of restrictions on what can be uttered or published.
There are no government restrictions on Facebook or Twitter. They are simply exercising their own judgment, an unfettered right accorded them under the First Amendment.
Being profit-oriented money-making enterprises, I think its fair to say they are attempting to create the business environment they think will prove most profitable to them monetarily over the long haul. In other words, they are weighing consumer sentiment and moving the direction the wind seems to be flowing, which is what all capitalist business enteprises do in a free-market environment.
Free expression and free markets at work, noting more. That's what our constitution guarantees.
If an American corporation decides Trump is a cancer who doesn't deserves millions of dollars of free advertising for blatant lies, that's it's right. It enjoys the same absolute right as every individual American.

Steve

RobsNewsRegister

It is the government that gave the section 230 protections in a communications act allowing BigTech to censor without consequence. Other communication industries don't enjoy that protection. There are also many instances of government and BigTech colluding with their censorship- censorship by proxy including this White House.

https://www.foxbusiness.com/politics/gop-senators-demand-answers-biden-administration-big-tech-censor-speech

This is far bigger than Donald Trump. You asked for a couple examples, I gave you a database filled with thousands. Here are some small compilations of notable examples from 2020 and 2021.

https://reclaimthenet.org/censorship-and-surveillance-2020/
https://newsbusters.org/blogs/free-speech/brian-bradley/2021/12/16/12-worst-cases-big-tech-censorship-2021

RobsNewsRegister

Steve- while I agree with you on the importance of free markets, per classical economics, monopoly and anti-trust protections need enforcement for it to function properly. That clearly isn't the case with BigTech as Washington has become a government of, for, and by, the lobbyist.

Here is how this may play out. The Right develops its social media from the ground up so that they cannot be kneecapped again (e.g., Parler). Then the Left will have their echo-chamber and the Right theirs. As the divide in our nation only grows, eventually the United States may split. As astonishing as that sounds, I follow an economic forecaster whose computer modelling projects a risk of such an occurrence as soon as the end of this decade. I hope he is wrong.

Chris Chenoweth

@RobsNewsRegister - You are spot on. I fear that we are heading down the path of a split nation as your economic forecaster's modeling suggests is possible. I have heard and read the same predictions. It is not secret that I view the media has having played a large role in the creation and fomenting of this divide only to be eclipsed by Big Tech. Look at the politics in Yamhill County and the local papers in both major cities decision to enter into the fray by allowing their reporters or guest writers (not oped writers) to enter the fray in a divisive, antagonistic way. Look at the existing social platforms and the tendency they have to create echo chambers of "groups" and "friends". We have lost connections to the world of different ideas. Statesmanship, that used to be a part of the political process from the candidates to the "journalists" and everyone in between, is being lost and that is to the detriment to us all.

RobsNewsRegister

Steve - I noticed that the 'examples' you wanted was for support by the press of Big-Tech censorship not the examples of that censorship (of which there are thousands). I noted examples from the NYT but there are likely others though I won't search for examples as it appears this online discussion has concluded. Apologies for the misunderstanding but I stand by my request that I expect the press as a whole to be the ones leading the charge in the fight against Big-Tech's censorship.