Monday, January 31, 2005

The kids aren't all right

The government shouldn't censor the media. Simple concept, right? A free press is at the foundation of a strong republic, isn't it?

A third of this country's high school students don't know that.

A University of Connecticut survey of 112,003 students conducted last spring revealed that 36 percent of respondents believe newspapers should have to get "government approval" of their stories before going to press. Thirty-two percent also said the press has "too much freedom." These statistics closely track the 2004 State of the First Amendment survey, which found that 30 percent of "adult" Americans (note the quotation marks) think the First Amendment "goes too far in the rights it guarantees."

The problem is clear: Too many Americans have a fundamental lack of understanding and respect for constitutional rights. The solutions are a little harder to nail down, but for simplicity, I'll narrow the list to two: 1) mandatory civics education in elementary and middle school, so children will learn early how important First Amendment freedoms are, and 2) widespread repudiation of politicians and pundits who attack the media to try to excuse their behavior or make a quick buck.

One of the underlying causes of many people's hostility toward the First Amendment is the belief that journalists are spreading lies all around them. That perception is fueled by opportunistic politicians and talking heads who accuse any reporter who doesn't repeat White House press releases verbatim of being part of the "liberal media." (As a refresher, let's review: Mother Jones and Air America are liberal media. The Washington Post and CNN aren't.)

These disingenuous charlatans scapegoat the press time and again until, almost inevitably, they poison people's view of the media. That has to stop. We must take the hyperbole artists and spin masters to task whenever they try to conquer by dividing us. We must demand that they stop seeking personal gain at the expense of our democracy. We must ensure that our leaders appeal not to our base emotions but to our noble ideals.

It's hard work, but the Constitution deserves our best efforts.

4 Comments:

Blogger Nick Beadle said...

Yeah, this story disturbed the hell out of me, but I don't think there's anything I can really add to this other conversation than that America needs to wake up and think for itself.

And given my recent efforts to get this point across at the collegiate level, I think I'm spent hitting this stuff myself for at least another month.

It's that disheartening.

1:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Being in the media, I can't disagree with you too much on this one.

More education is indeed a big step in the right direction, but I don't know if such education as early as elementary school is justified.

I want students to learn how to read and calculate before they are made to tackle bigger issues such as the First Amendment. I'd be OK with maybe some Schoolhouse Rock videos and/or a field trip or two to media outlets, but I don't think we should throw the entire subject of civics at them when they're still learning the basics of the "three R's."

I'd like to hear your proposed elementary civics curriculum, though. Perhaps it wouldn't be as burdensome for the students as I believe.

I do have one defense of the students who thought that media outlets should obtain government approval before running a story: Many student-run high school media outlets experience prior restraint from the principal or club sponsor before being allowed to publish a news story or broadcast a newscast. So I think their opinion of the media may be skewed by such oppression they experience with their own school media outlets: Perhaps they believe some form of prior restraint is OK because of that.

But if I end up teaching high school journalism someday, I vow to safeguard my students against any form of prior restraint, as well as teach them why such a practice restricts freedom of the press.

By the way, I elaborate on the topic on my blog in my latest post. In that post, I also gave you some link action to this post.

J.B.G.

2:38 AM  
Blogger Jen said...

I agree with you on the high school newspaper premise. But I also think, how many times have they heard in the last year (if they're following the news) that something (ie, 9/11 Commission hearings, energy meetings) can't be publicized because of "national security"? When it's framed in that argument, the press looks like the tabloids, publishing sensitive information for ratings. Of course, the press hasn't really lifted a finger to repair its own image--I think the press need to clearly delineate what they're about and begin being that entity again. It might clear some of the confusion up as to what's its constitutional rights are.

7:07 AM  
Blogger Alabamian said...

You both make outstanding points. And Nick, I'm sorry it's such a struggle to help college students see the importance of a free press. The problem is that a lot of them may learn about it for the first time in college, and by then they've developed 18 to 21 years of preconceived notions to the contrary.

J.B.G., I don't think we should teach constitutional law to third-graders, but it'd be good to teach them that there is a Constitution and that it protects their freedom to say what they want and worship how (or if) they please. I like the Schoolhouse Rock and field trip ideas a lot.

The problem is that lots of teachers and administrators are afraid to tell kids about the Constitution early because they're afraid that it might be even more difficult to keep children from misbehaving in class if they think they have some kind of constitutional right to do so. It's a fair point, but I think we've reached the point as a society that the potential gain that could be had by teaching children in the early grades about the Constitution outweighs any risks involved.

Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the case that gave K-12 administrators substantial control over the content of school publications in the interest of ensuring a safe learning environment, meant well, but principals have abused it far too often to suppress news that they think might "make the school look bad." I was fortunate enough in my high-school journalism days to have a principal who understood the value of a free press, but not everyone is so lucky. J.B.G. is right: The message of censorship from above is often conveyed early, and unfortunately, it frequently sticks.

Jen, I agree entirely that it's time for the media to stand up for themselves and remind people that they were nicknamed "the Fourth Estate" for a reason. I've always liked this quote by Thomas Jefferson: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

9:30 AM  

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