Columnist Susan Wozniak: The First Amendment in danger

  • Replica of the Constitution of the United States as Signed by Our Founding Fathers Photopa1

Published: 8/2/2020 3:00:13 PM

It is strange that a segment of the population focuses on the Second Amendment when it is the First Amendment that is in danger.

It is stranger still that in the American worship of Thomas Jefferson, most people see him as a champion of the press. But, most of all, it is strange that lay people have no idea what it means to be a journalist.

The placement of freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the First Amendment shows how important a free press was to the founders. But, before there was a Constitution, three of the founders — Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison writing under the pseudonym Publius — used the press to urge the ratification of the Constitution. Their collected essays are known as The Federalist Papers.

In an illustration of the press as a platform for debate, a group only recently recognized as The Anti-Federalists, presented their views. Who they were is still a matter of debate. Samuel Bryan is considered among them and some of the writings of Patrick Henry are included. Debated are George Clinton, Melancton Smith, Robert Yates, John Williams and Richard Henry Lee. A woman, essayist and playwright Mercy Otis Warren, is also considered to have contributed.

We know that Jefferson clearly stated that were he to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government,” his vote would be for newspapers alone. However, chaffing under the press’ criticism of his administration, he came to deplore “the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity and the mendacious spirit of those who write for them.”

The founders, of course, received the classical education of their day. As for the training of journalists, when I was in college, the advice was to major in what you wanted to write about and to minor in journalism. Minor because most people aspiring to journalism careers were already competent writers. I saw journalism minors majoring in religion, fashion design and political science.

When we were newly wed, my then husband and I drove past a vocational school. “You could teach here,” he said as he slowed down. “No, I can’t. I have no background in anything a vocational school offers.” “Journalism,” he said. “You could teach journalism.”

That’s when I explained to him what a journalist’s training consists of, ending with the fact that many investigative journalists — like those on the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team — often had law degrees.

But journalism today is facing a crisis and it is not simply due to the rise of electronic media. As Jason Stanley, philosopher and linguistician (yes, that is a word), pointed out in an essay originally published in the New York Times, there is a wish that people of different political persuasions would engage in reasoned debate. William Lutz, also a linguistician, explains why they do not, in his essay, “The World of Doublespeak.” Borrowed from George Orwell, doublespeak is “language that pretends to communicate.”

Doublespeak is found in advertising, but it is also found in euphemisms that are meant to deceive, rather than to be polite. During the 20th century, government and the military shamefully employed euphemisms to deceive. To which Stanley adds, they have also used gobbledygook (bureaucratese or technical language) and inflated language (calling a garbage collector a sanitation provider) and propaganda to silence citizens by depriving them of the correct language to use in debate.

Recently, there has been a rise in citizen journalists. We must acknowledge that they have filled a gap. Armed with their phones, they take photographs of events as they happen. The murder of Mr. Floyd is an example. For the most part, citizen journalists are seldom good writers. They often lack training in political science, history and economics. They are without editors, who might cull insults and sharpen arguments.

As training in critical thinking has decreased over the two most recent generations, the citizen journalist might not recognize the nature of a problem, or, how to present it. And finally, while the greatest advantage a citizen journalist has is being in the middle of news-making events, few if any have the time and the funds to engage in long-form journalism.

Nor do citizens have the access to news makers, authorities and witnesses, who, through interviews, provide important sources of information. This is not to discourage the citizen journalist who can be “Johnny on the spot” with a cellphone. Their photos may be the only record of an event or mishap. However, more than ever, the training and insight and access of the professional journalist is needed.

Susan Wozniak belongs to three alumni associations with at least one other woman named Susan Wozniak in each. She can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.


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