2006-07-06 / Editorial/Opinion

From theEditor's Desk

By Howard Schwach


There has always been an historic tension between journalists and the government. That is just the way our Founding Fathers wanted it and they made sure that the condition would remain in perpetuity by writing that tension into the U. S. Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson, one of our greatest statesmen and one of the major forces in writing the Constitution in 1787 said, in effect, "Given the choice between a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I would rather have the newspapers."

John Peter Zenger was a New York City newspaper editor who criticized the Royal Governor, William Cosby in his paper, The New York Weekly Journal. In 1734, Zenger was arrested and jailed by the governor for "divers scandalous, virulent, false and seditious reflections."

After more than eight months in a British prison, Zenger, defended by Alexander Hamilton, went on trial.

The jury found him not guilty and the freedom of the press, based on English Common Law, was upheld.

Fifty years later, the Founding Fathers reaffirmed that freedom in Article One of the Bill of Rights.

Don't think that Jefferson, Hamilton and the others did not think of Zenger when they were crafting the first ten amendments to the Constitution. He was on everybody's mind and those at the Constitutional Convention wanted to make sure that another Zenger would not be jailed again for speaking the truth about what was perceived as governmental excess or criminality.

Perhaps the most famous case in recent history was the Pentagon Papers Case.

On June 13, 1971, more than thirty-five years ago last month, President Richard Nixon picked up the New York Times to see a story about a "secret" Pentagon report that traced three decades of American involvement in Vietnam.

Nixon ordered his Attorney General John Mitchell to seek a restraining order against the Times from publishing any further articles on the subject. A restraining order was issued and the case quickly went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The government's position was made clear by H. R. Haldeman, the president's chief of staff in a discussion with the president that was later made public as part of the "Watergate" investigation that put Haldeman and Mitchell in jail and forced Nixon's resignation.

"But out of [this newspaper article] comes a very clear thing: You can't trust the government; you can't believe what [the government] says; you can't rely on their judgment and the implicit infallibility if presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it show that people do things the President wants to do even though it's wrong and the President can be wrong," Haldeman told his boss.

On June 30. 1971, the court, in a 6-3 decision, lifted the ban and affirmed the paper's right to publish the report that was critical of the government's actions in Vietnam. That decision reaffirmed the freedom of the press to write about government and its actions, even when the government was trying to keep those actions secret from the citizens.

Simply put, newspapers are there to report what is going on.

That might not always be good news. In fact, newspapers spend much more ink on bad news than they do on good.

That bothers some of the readers of weekly community papers such as this one.

We are often told that we are harming the community by putting crime, negative school stories and corruption on the front page.

Last weekend, in discussing the recent New York Times article that reported a secret program to monitor bank transactions, Bob Sheiffer said, "We don't always report what the readers or viewers want to hear. We don't always report good news. When you see a fire down the street, you are not happy about it, but you sure want to know all the details of what happened."

He is right. When people see helicopters up over their homes for an hour, they look to The Wave to tell them what it was all about.

When they hear the sirens roaring down the street, they look to us to tell them where those fire trucks and police cars were going and why.

That is our job, and I believe that we do it just about as well or better than any other community paper in the city.

We have another job, however, and that is to report on how public institutions such as the schools, the police, local politicians, city government are all keeping the public trust.

Recently, for example, members of the State Assembly and Senate were provided with $200 million of your money to use for what they call "member items." That money, doled out by the leadership, can be used in any way the legislator sees fit.

Most of it goes to worthy local causes such as the little league, the arts organizations, volies and the like.

The problem is, where the money goes and how much is spent is kept secret by the leadership.

Don't you have the right to know how your money is being spent? Of course you do, and newspapers across the state, including The Wave, are calling local legislators to find out how they spent that money.

Papers are also filing "Freedom of Information Law" requests with the legislature to get that information.

We should not have to do that. The spending of public money deserved public scrutiny and that is our job.

There are certainly times when a newspaper withholds information from the public.

When the publication of a story endangers somebody's life, we would of course withhold the information.

We commonly use anonymous sources when using the name of an informant in an important story would cost that informant his or her livelihood or even his or her life.

That may sound dramatic, but it happens more often than you might think.Of course, we do not get into the issue as deeply as the national dailies such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

The Bush White House is angry at the editors of those papers for publishing a story about the secret monitoring of bank accounts by the CIA.

The Vice President says that The Times "aided global terrorism" by publishing the story. The President said that the story "did great harm" to America.

Congressman Peter King, the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, was even stronger.

He wants the editors of the papers tried under a 1917 Espionage Act for revealing classified information.

The papers defend themselves by saying that the terrorists already knew about the program, that the only ones who did not know were the public. They argue that the public has a right to know about the program.

I think that Jefferson, Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers would have agreed.

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