I read somewhere that the average American rates journalists lower than lawyers. That may be a case of the wish being the mother of the memory, since I abandoned the scribbling profession decades ago and spent most of my working career as a lawyer and judge. I would like to believe that I made the right choice.
What gives rise to such weighty thoughts is the tsunami of media coverage of the “road rage” killing in Howell last week. Not that the shocking incident was devoid of newsworthiness. When something like that happens in a community, its citizens have the right to know about it. Period. And that’s where the media does a public service.
This particular tragedy will no doubt spur a closer examination of concealed weapons laws and further discussion of road rage incidents. So-called road rage was a hot media topic a few years back and then faded away after one study showed such violence was no more prevalent than other kinds of anger incidents. Gun law arguments never fade away.
My scribbling this day is prompted by a letter in the local daily that condemned the media for conducting its own trial before the Rule of Law had its opportunity to do its job. Unfortunately, there was a lot of truth in that charge, but it is a problem that has existed for virtually the whole life of our Nation. We want a free press and freedom of speech, but we must pay a price for it. Jefferson supposedly said that he’d rather put up with an irresponsible press rather than no press at all. Well, some say, he got his wish.
Yet, one has to ask: where would we be without the press? Although there is much to criticize in our media—an elitist mentality, political correctness, at times deliberate slanting of the news— I still believe that the Republic would be doomed without the press’s ability to expose and criticize those who run our government, or for that criticize matter any person or group that exercises power. .
A couple of examples. The takedown of Richard Nixon was basically the accomplishment of two bloodhound reporters backed by an editor with a stiff backbone. When the Watergate rock was turned over and the insects came crawling out, Nixon had to go.
Yes, the Nixon scandal was two generations ago, but how about the British press’s ongoing expose of the sex slave scandal in the northern English city of Rotherham? For more than a decade young girls were groomed to become sexual toys for grown men, then sold into sex slavery. Allegedly 1,400 girls were victimized.
An element of political correctness raises its ugly head in that story. The girls, roughly 12 years old or so, were white, while the alleged offenders were “Asian”, often British Pakistani Muslims. Allegedly, on the one hand, the police were cold-hearted cretins, sneering at the girls’ complaints, and, on the other hand, afraid to do anything because of the political correctness polluting British thinking. Remember, England is the nation where the Archbishop of Canterbury said that Sharia law at some point would have to be recognized. Sometimes people can be so open minded that their brains fall out.
In both the Nixon case and the English scandal it was the press that exposed the wrong-doing. A free press is an indispensable element of a free democratic nation. That said, I have to express concern about the kind of publicity that so often seems to convict a defendant before he gets to trial. My observation over the years is that day in and day out our criminal justice system works well. The jury system acts as a brake on overzealous prosecutors, and silk-tonged defense lawyers can’t change the facts. My experience is that jurors are intelligent, dedicated people who bring into that jury room a sense of fairness and common sense based on their life experiences. Granted that there are occasional cases where things go awry (often, I might add, where relentless publicity influences jurors), but in the end justice usually gets done.
Meanwhile, we cannot and should not muzzle the press, not if we really love that old document called the Constitution. Cringe a little at the foibles of the Fourth Estate, but keep in mind that things would be a heck of a lot worse without those pesky, obnoxious reporters.
Be skeptical, not cynical. There’s a difference. A big one.