Freedom of the Press
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Freedom of the Press... An Ism?

A Speech Given at The Cleveland Plain Dealer

November 17, 1973

This is a personal one-man effort to emphasize how important the "press" is to America. I am referring to the "press" as it is used in the First Amendment. All who claim to be included in the "press" as it is used in the First Amendment should recognize that "the only ism that can kill America is journalism." Journalism, in this sense, refers to the "press" as it is used in the First Amendment.

The only ism that can kill America is journalism. Before everybody gets too upset, recognize that the opposite is also true: The only ism that can preserve America is journalism. The only ism that can save America for the future is journalism. The only ism that can create America anew for each generation is journalism.

I believe the framers of our Constitution recognized this. They must have recognized it because they put in first, an amendment to protect the press -- to protect journalism and all who claim to be included in the "press" as used in the First Amendment.

The framers of America realized that if you are going to have a free society, you must have a free press. If you are going to have an open society, you must have an open press. If you are going to have an honest society, you must have an honest press. If you are going to have a society committed to the American Absolutes (a society committed to the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), then you must have a press committed to those inalienable absolute rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Others have recognized this to be true. The men who wrote the Canons of Journalism must have been thinking of all this when they wrote the ethics of journalism. I believe it is a public service to be able to read them to you. It is certainly a public service to print them. It is most certainly in the public's best interest for the "press" to follow the Canons of Journalism on all issues.


(These Canons of Journalism were drawn up and adopted by The American Society of Newspaper Editors in their annual conventions of 1924 and 1925. The 1926 convention of Sigma Delta Chi, sitting at Madison, Wisconsin in November, officially adopted the Canons in behalf of the Society.)

The primary function of newspapers is to communicate to the human race what its members do, feel and think. Journalism, therefore, demands of its practitioners the widest range of intelligence, of knowledge, and of experience, as well as natural and trained powers of observation and reasoning. To its opportunities as a chronicle are indissolubly linked its obligations as teacher and interpreter.

To the end of finding some means of codifying sound practice and just aspirations of American journalism these canons are set forth:

I. RESPONSIBILITY -- The right of a newspaper to attract and hold readers is restricted by nothing but consideration of public welfare. The use a newspaper makes of the share of public attention it gains serves to determine its sense of responsibility, which it shares with every member of its staff. A journalist who uses his power for any selfish or otherwise unworthy purpose is faithless to a high trust.

II. FREEDOM OF THE PRESS -- Freedom of the press is to be guarded as a vital right of mankind. It is the unquestionable right to discuss whatever is not explicitly forbidden by law, including the wisdom of any restrictive statute.

III. INDEPENDENCE -- Freedom from all obligations except that of fidelity to the public interest is vital.

1. Promotion of any private interest contrary to the general welfare, for whatever reason, is not compatible with honest journalism. So-called news communications from private sources should not be published without public notice of their source or else substantiation of their claims to value as news, both in form and substance.

2. Partisanship, in editorial comment which knowingly departs from the truth, does violence to the best spirit of American journalism; in the news columns, it is subversive of a fundamental principle of the profession.

IV. SINCERITY, TRUTHFULNESS, ACCURACY -- Good faith with the reader is the foundation of all journalism worthy of the name.

1. By every consideration of good faith a newspaper is constrained to be truthful. It is not to be excused for lack of thoroughness or accuracy within its control or failure to obtain command of these essential qualities.

2. Headlines should be fully warranted by the contents of the articles which they surmount.

V. IMPARTIALITY -- Sound practice makes clear distinction between news reports and expressions of opinion. News reports should be free from opinion or bias of any kind.

1. This rule does not apply to so-called special articles unmistakably devoted to advocacy or characterized by a signature authorizing the writer's own conclusions and interpretation.

VI. FAIR PLAY -- A newspaper should not publish unofficial charges affecting reputation or moral character without opportunity given to the accused to be heard; right practice demands the giving of such opportunity in all cases of serious accusation outside judicial proceedings.

1. A newspaper should not invade private rights or feelings without sure warrant of public right as distinguished from public curiosity.

2. It is the privilege, as it is the duty, of a newspaper to make prompt and complete correction of its own serious mistakes of fact or opinion, whatever their origin.

VII. DECENCY -- A newspaper cannot escape conviction of insincerity if while professing high moral purpose it supplies incentives to base conduct, such as are to be found in details of crime or vice, publication of which is not demonstrably for the general good. Lacking authority to enforce its canons, the journalism here represented can but express the hope that deliberate pandering to vicious instincts will encounter effective public disapproval or yield to the influence of a preponderant professional condemnation.

Now why have I read these out loud? Why have I done this? Basically it is because these are good ethics. And we most certainly are, this November of 1973, in an ethical crisis. And if "the only ism that can kill America (or save it) is journalism," then journalists must look to themselves. Is the ethical crisis in government today somehow related to a lack of awareness of ethics by journalism and those who claim to be included in the word "press" as used in the First Amendment?

You journalists (and all who claim to be included in the word "press" as used in the First Amendment) must look to yourselves. If, as Pulitzer said "Our republic and its press will rise or fall together" (and that is the same thing as saying "the only ism that can kill America is journalism"), then it should be evident that the ethical crisis in government is related to the absence of ethics in journalism and the "press."

These ethics, these Canons of Journalism were not meant for your personal values or your own personal crusades, any more than the First Amendment was placed for your personal values or your personal crusades. And if you feel the fundamental American Absolutes of the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are no longer valid, then neither any longer valid is the First Amendment. If you claim the protection of the First Amendment, then you must be worthy of it and remain true to the fundamental guidelines given by those who framed the First Amendment as well as who phrased the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

So there is no story here in terms of why I am reading you your ethics. The only story is in the ethics themselves -- the Canons of Journalism -- they have been hidden too long from the American people and from those who claim to be included in the word "press" as it is used in the First Amendment.

(Many were invited: Cleveland's six television channels, Newsweek, TIME, The Wall Street Journal, World Magazine, The New York Times, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Cleveland Press, The Catholic Universe Bulletin, The City Club of Cleveland, The Sun Papers, The Cleveland Call & Post, The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, and the Cleveland Magazine. No one came except a photographer from the Catholic Universe Bulletin.)


The First Amendment reads "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

If alive today, the framers of the Constitution would be surprised at nothing in the First Amendment except the "press" and the worst it has come to include: television, radio, magazine, and newspaper chains all controlled by "families" who sleep and dine with the wealthy aristocracy of big business. The framers would not see a "free press" but, instead, a "press" enslaved by a clique of media industrialists who subtly manipulate their wishes, ideas, values, and aims onto the public. They would see a one-sided communication tyranny on our children. They would see the impact of advertising on news reporting. They would see reporters without ethics; and editor-publishers who deviously impose their morals (or lack of them) onto the population. They would see selective censorship and arbitrary suppression of information by the powers of the media. In essence, the framers would not see a "press" committed to the America Absolutes -- the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Since the framers of the Constitution gave powers cautiously and only then with checks and balances, it is inconceivable that they would have unleashed the "press" had they any idea of the communication and mind controlling power it has acquired.

(A momentary digression: The "press" most strongly defends the ideas of the framers of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, only in regards to the First Amendment! Does the "press" promote "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as vigorously? Perhaps this discrepancy has something to do with the media industrialists wanting to keep the power they have attained.)

I maintain that the word "press" as used in the First Amendment does not include the one sided wishes, ideas, values, and aims of the media and communications aristocracy; or the sensitivities of advertisers; or dishonest, unbalanced, unfair reporting; or editors who impose their morality on others by slick public relation techniques.

Therefore, I call for some checks and balances to be developed for the "press" (and the communications -- media industry it has come to include) -- such as the dissolution of family chains, the separation of the wealthy from the "press," the public election of editors, and the open, honest, and balanced presentation of the news and life styles in accordance with both the Canons of Journalism as well as the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


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