At Risk: Democracy's Barometer
"If it were left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter" –Thomas Jefferson
In 1955, I enrolled at Fordham University to study journalism. My studies began in the wake of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s affront on free expression. Governmental suppression of dissent was fresh in the minds of academia. My professors emphasized the danger of the big-brother governments imagined in Aldous Huxley’s "Brave New World" and George Orwell’s "1984."
I was taught that American journalism was born of the legal case against John Peter Zenger in 1735. Zenger was a newspaper editor who was jailed by an autocratic governor for printing a critical editorial piece on the governor. An inspired jury ruled that editorializing on government leaders was indeed not “seditious libel,” as the governor contended.
Zenger’s acquittal armed the ordinary man, through journalism, with a valuable tool to check the powerful. The case can be cited as one reason why freedom of press found its way into the first amendment, and why the first amendment is the FIRST amendment.
Never did I imagine that America would regress to a time when the voice of dissent again stood threatened.
I was sadly mistaken. Not since Zenger’s trial has America seen the institution of journalism so violated. Not since the McCarthy hearings has America seen the first amendment so bruised. President Bush has traveled a long and unethical path to indoctrinate Americans with one voice, one ideology.
The diverse voices in our media are being assimilated into a singular chorus at the behest of the Federal Communications Commission. The White House press corps has been transformed into a supporting cast. Widely read political columnists are secretly being paid off with tax dollars to promote the Bush Administration’s policy initiatives. Actors have replaced broadcast journalists in video news releases promoting additional administration policy initiatives. Critics are being threatened for voicing dissent. A journalist has been jailed for exercising her commitment to honest reporting.
Perhaps more alarming than any of the above mentioned violations of the public trust is the emasculation being conductred from within its own ranks, of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
In a media market so polluted with commercial programming driven by ratings, public television and radio are important shepherds of the independent voice that is the lifeblood of our democracy. The indispensable nature of public broadcasting was demonstrated by the tens of thousands of calls and letters that flooded congressional offices when PBS funding was recently put in danger.
CPB is a corporation that funds public broadcasters and guards stations like PBS and NPR from operating under political influence. The CPB Chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson, has not fulfilled his role to act as a firewall between public broadcast and political influence. Instead, it is he who has an injected politics into programming.
Tomlinson has hired two Republican lobbyists and a partisan researcher to investigate what he calls, a “liberal bias” in public broadcasting. Tomlinson’s definition of “liberal bias” is simply a political euphemism for, voice of dissent.
The search for bias by Tomlinson and his partisan team of researchers resulted in calling Sen. Chuck Hagel a liberal after the Republican war hero from Nebraska appeared on PBS ans spoke criticaly of President Busd's foreign policy. It is not everyday that a senator who votes one hundred percent of the time with the conservative Christian Coalition of America is called a liberal.
I have a simple message for Mr. Tomlinson. Resign.
His resignation will not be without precedent. In 1973, CPB Chairman Thomas Curtis resigned for the very reason that America needs Tomlinson to step down now: Curtis recognized partisan pressure from the White House. He recognized the danger of meddling. Partisan pollution has no place in public journalism.
Freedom of expression, including a free press, separates us from authoritarian governments and the extremists who wish to do us harm. They should not be given the satisfaction of seeing us trade in the Constitution, for political leverage. It is our responsibility to be sure that constitutional values remain intact when those who are fighting to spread them abroad return home.
I welcome readers who dissent from this commentary. The voice of dissent is a barometer of our democracy's quality. I have that voice. Readers have it. So should public broadcasters.
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, represents the 8th Congressional District.