Dubroff: Free press underpins democracy and can help us regain common purpose in face of violence
Earlier this month in New York I was honored by SABEW — The Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the leading organization of business journalists — for my work as chair of our organization’s First Amendment Committee.
The award came as a surprise. Most of my work involves drafting statements that reflect the views of our members, ranging from The Wall Street Journal and Reuters to local business publications like this one.
Our issues include how government economic reports get released to open records laws. Occasionally we advocate for business journalists who have been arrested while doing their jobs.
While working on First Amendment issues, I’ve become keenly aware of how important the free press is to a functioning democracy. Watching in horror as the aftermath of the shootings in Uvalde, Texas, unfolded on television, I was struck by the fact that Fox News was highly critical of President Joe Biden’s speech while MSNBC was interviewing Michael Moore about “Bowling for Columbine.”
Over on TNT, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr was making an emotional appeal for gun control — a personal and passionate issue for him since his father, Malcolm, the president of the American University in Beirut, was shot and killed in Lebanon when Kerr was in high school.
It is hard to imagine America without a functioning free press that can criticize elected officials from the left and the right. And where nobody needs a license from the government to express a point of view.
For all of those who say that the U.S. and Europe provoked Russia into war with Ukraine by allowing countries like Estonia and Romania to join NATO, my rejoinder is that it is not likely that Russia would have gone to war if there was a free press and a public debate about the invasion, rather than state-controlled media and a Duma that passed a law that made it a crime to call the war anything other than the state sanctioned “special military operation.”
In my remarks at the SABEW awards ceremony, I noted that America’s leading institutions for business journalism — The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Bloomberg, The New York Times, Reuters, and others – are financially strong. But the legal underpinnings for the free press are relatively weak.
We typically rely on a handful of court cases that define who are “public figures” and whether there can be censorship or “prior restraint” on a publisher. The First Amendment itself states that “Congress shall make no law” restricting freedom of the press, but it does not say anything about what a court or the executive branch might do. It is a combination of tradition, court precedent and common practice that gives the press the freedom it enjoys today.
Social media companies enjoy more freedom because of their exemption from liability over content posted by users — a contentious point on which the only agreement is that things have gotten out of hand.
Which brings me back to the shootings in Uvalde, Texas, where is appears that a high schooler marked his 18th birthday by purchasing two guns and a week later killed 19 elementary school students and two teachers in a single classroom. He apparently hinted at his future actions on social media but nobody seems to have noticed.
I think it is the role of the press to make sure we don’t get numb to these incidents of mass violence. I agree with Kerr that if we become numb to civic violence then we have lost something really big in America — a sense of decency and common purpose and the ability to reach practical solutions to civic problems.
Having lived through the Isla Vista massacre and Borderline shootings on the Central Coast, and in Colorado, the shootings in Columbine, at the Aurora Theater and a Boulder supermarket, it is easy to see that something is wrong. Harden civic targets? Pass sensible rules for background checks and magazine capacity? I believe we can try them all and respect the Second Amendment at the same time.
The bottom line is that it is all too easy to see how the traditions that have created our modern free press can be eroded, and the ability to find common ground could be lost.
• Henry Dubroff is owner and editor of the Pacific Coast Business Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.