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Who's watching the watchdog?

Should journalists be held accountable to public allegations of their misconduct? Do we need an industry-wide or profession-wide process or system to investigate, evaluate, and act on these allegations? Are press protections superior to other First Amendment and constitutional protections and values?

In other words, should the watchdog itself be watched, how, and by whom?

Consider the public's attitude toward freedom of the press as summarized in a survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors:

"If the First Amendment bestows extraordinary privilieges upon the press because it is essential to the workings of a democratic public, that point seems lost on most members of the public surveyed.

"Further, the American public is generally far more willing to protect free expression rights of individuals than those of the media."

The survey was conducted in observance of the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights and is only one of several studies that have found the public very much disenchanted with a press it perceives to be arrogant, biased, dishonest, unfair, inaccurate, shallow, sensational, abusive of people's right to privacy or fair trial, and a host of other sins.

Granted, not all journalists are guilty of the misconduct the public accuses them of committing. What really matters, though, is that there are enough sins and sinners among journalists to warrant raising the question of impartial rules and a process for investigating alleged wrongdoing by journalists.

It is the stubborn unwillingness of journalists to submit public allegations of press misconduct to an impartial review that is largely responsible for the current public view of freedom of the press as secondary to the values of accuracy, honesty, and fairness, prompting some concerned practitioners to wonder what the press ought to do to enhance its integrity.

Steve Bell, former anchor of ABC's Morning News, has made some useful suggestions.

"Never forget the need for credibility," Bell says. "Be aware of where your credibility stands at any given time, and look for ways to enhance your own image of fairness and accuracy. Dissociate yourself from, or try to influence, those among you who you think are hurting your credibility."

Bell's advice, which represents a candid admission that there are bad journalists, implies a need for rules to be observed in dissociating or influencing those who are hurting the profession.

Traditionally, journalists have resisted rules on grounds of protecting their First Amendment freedoms. However, a fair and balanced look at the First Amendment reveals three major provisions, one of which may have ominous consequences for blind allegiance to only the press freedom guarantees.

Of the First Amendment guarantees, freedom to petition government for redress of grievances has received the least attention by journalists. Anybody with a sense of history knows, however, that the American Revolution began when colonists became disgruntled after the British parliament refused to hear their grievances, particularly about taxation.

Would a history-conscious Congress dare refuse to give a hearing to a disgruntled public angered by press misconduct? Similarly, would a history-conscious court consider the First Amendment rights of the press superior to the First Amendment rights of the public to seek redress of press misconduct from Congress?

Considering the confirmation of Judge Clarence Thomas to replace Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court, the 1990s might be a good time for journalists to revisit their Jeffersonian and Madison libertarian views of press freedom.

It is entirely possible that the 1990's Supreme Court may favor Benjamin Franklin's views on press freedom over those of Jefferson and Madison.

Speaking of press freedom, Franklin said: "Few of us, I believe, have distinct ideas of its nature and extent . . . If it means the liberty of affronting, calumniating, and defaming one another, I, for my part, own myself willing to part with my share of it when our legislators shall cheerfully consent to exchange my liberty of abusing others for the privilege of not being abused myself."

The ultimate answer to the apparent conflict between the press freedom and the public right to petition for redress provisions of the First Amendment might be found in the "social compact" concept implied in Franklin's views.

If journalists would voluntarily cede some of the First Amendment freedoms to an impartial agent that could give public grievances against the press an impartial hearing and resolution, the concept of freedom so pervasive in American life would be preserved.

Otherwise the public's sense of fairness and justice may prompt the public to resort to asserting its right to redress by petitioning government to intercede in the press--as guaranteed in the First Amendment.

As for the specific rules that would be binding on all those who profess to be journalists, the Society of Professional Journalist's present Code of Ethics provides a good starting point -- if the censure pledge removed from the code in 1985 is reinstated. It is human nature that rules that lack an enforcement mechanism will be virtually ignored.

To ensure compliance to the rules, journalists may look to a possible revival of the defunct National News Council or create some other similar organization to settle conflicts that arise between the press and the general public.

If we are to restore the public trust in the media and enhance the preservation of First Amendment values, journalists must be willing to subject themselves to the same impartial review of alleged misconduct they expect of other professionals.

Clearly defined rules and procedures to be enforced by the watchdog's watchdog are essential to preserve public perception of impartiality and fairness.

Lawrence Kaggwa, former chairman of Howard University's Department of Journalism, is a professor and general manager of the school's Community News.
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Title Annotation:Special Report: Ethics; should journalists submit themselves to a national board of review? includes related article
Author:Kaggwa, Lawrence
Publication:The Quill
Date:Nov 1, 1991
Words:936
Previous Article:Crossing that line.
Next Article:Oh, that code of ethics.
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