The First Amendment; James Higgens: Censorship
WGBH Boston in cooperation with the Institute for Democratic communications at the School of Communications with Boston University now presents the First Amendment and a free people. An examination of civil liberties in the media in the 1970s and now here is the director of the Institute for democratic communication. Dr. Bernard Rubin.
What happens when terrorists strike when the news is full of their activities when everybody's wondering what will happen next when hostages are being held and people are concerned that there might be a bloodletting. What's the purpose of the press how do media handle such stories. Are there responsibilities. Can they protect the right of objective reporting at the same time that they might be urged by some to squelch the news or to tone it down. This is not a will of the wisp concern. As you know more and more terrorists are striking around the world. One of the Muslims in Washington not very long ago for example in which one person was killed and hundreds were kept hostage in three different buildings. What does the press do. Well after that the president of CBS News Richard S. alarmed issued some criteria for CBS reporters. Among those criteria are and I'm quoting now The story should not be sensationalized beyond the actual fact of its being sensational. To avoid giving the terrorists an excessive platform on television for his use of grievances there should be no live coverage of the terrorist except in the most compelling circumstances. And then only with the approval of the president of CBS News or in his absence of the next higher ranking officer newsmen should be careful not to interfere with telephone communication between the authorities and the terrorists. Mr salon also said that coverage of the story should be such that overall balance was once detained along with other important news items of the day. To discuss this question with me I have two very learned and very professional reporters also professors at Boston University of journalism Robert Baer and Jim Hagen James Higgins. Gentlemen let me just throw that out before I bring in any other data on this problem starting with Jim Higgins. Jim can the press handle a hot story like that protecting the public interest and the rights of the Fourth Estate.
Oh I don't think there's any doubt they can handle it. But time after time the press has given indications that it's incapable of handling such a story responsibly and accurately. And I think one of the reasons for this is that there is what you might call a crisis of ignorance in those who operate the media. Radio television and newspapers that unless they know what the historical political cultural context of the situation is within which the violence or terrorism whatever we want to call it has occurred it's incapable they're incapable of presenting the nose in the in a reasonable fashion which as you say will meet the requirements of the public interest and also meet the standards of accurate reporting. In other words in my opinion the press is and I think the riots for example of the 1960s showed this very clearly the press does not understand ahead of time what the political the historical the social the cultural context is of these matters which become visible through violence through the exercise of terrorism.
Well clearly irrespective of what CBS said it would do and those that followed CBS very similarly in terms of guidelines. You just can't program the news in the way you're going to play it. In fact if you do try to program it I think that's that. That is a way of saying we really will not handle it as a news story. You were then in a sense I'm fabricating the entire episode by saying before it Priore that we won't do this we will do this we won't do that. And each story has its own dynamic. And you have to play that story the way it emerges and to say that you want to do to do things that might expose individuals to the danger. And so this is these this is this is a guideline we've used for a long time indeed. But worst of all I think what we're saying in effect is and this is an old story that the people might misuse this you just can't trust the people to handle it. And it seems to me that is as news disseminators our role is to disseminate the news which belongs to the people not to us. And you assume as very many presidents have done that the people aren't quite ready for as we are. Some of us are of course. But they might not know what to do with it is to assume that we have more knowledge more wisdom than the people in terms of voting. I think we've generally found of the people are way ahead of the figures who generally believe they're wiser than the people.
Well that's all very true and I agree with that. There was a motion picture not too long ago starring Kirk Douglas and he played a newspaper reporter as I recall it was a man trapped in a in a mine and he wanted to keep the story going so he learned of Floyd Collins he wanted to delay the the what I'm bringing up there is that it doesn't seem right for the press to participate in the story now. Representative Collins of the James M. Collins of Texas introduced some thoughts of his own into the Congressional Record very recently. On the the 20th of March one thousand seventy seven he was talking about the NAAFI Muslim situation and I just read this very short. It has come to my attention that there were cases of media intervention that might very well have triggered a tragic outcome for the innocent victims there were cases of interviews with the colors they have an AFI leader during which the terrorist became increasingly agitated and menacing toward his victims. There were also incidents during the ongoing radio coverage where journalists actually expose the maneuverings of the police broadcasting where the police were locating themselves and surrounding buildings and so forth. Mr Speaker these those terrorists had radios with them. I need not emphasize the responsibility of news tips by reporters to terrorists regarding the strategic movements of the police and that's the end of that quote Jim how do you.
Well no I sort of agree with you. I forget the name of the guy that your representative James Collins of taxation Representative James Collins I sort of agree with him. I think when you do have a a.
Situation where there is where there is a danger to life danger to the safety of human beings that the press at this particular moment doesn't have any exclusive right or arbitrary right to move in and interfere with its news gathering techniques in the protection of the safety and security of these people. But I would just say that this is a habit that the press has not only in situations of the type that you're describing but it does this constantly by shoving microphones before the faces of people coming out of committee meetings chasing celebrities down the street in search of its of its a press habit and it's a habit which I think is deplorable and doesn't as a matter of fact produce much at all in the way of accurate significant and pertinent knows.
So I agree with I agree with the congressman on that count which doesn't at all which it isn't at all to say as I'm sure you and Bob would agree that the press doesn't have a responsibility for covering the story when it's possible to cover it all.
I believe that that congressman did not tell the whole story. I would fully agree that the pressure to not act deliberately in a way in which to endanger other human beings. Of course not. However the police were fully exposed that they were referring to in the NAAFI affair. And if I mean if we were to assume this is again the assumption that we're privy to special information that no one else is.
If the if anyone assumes that the NAAFI Muslims who were in the buildings didn't know that the police were out there. I mean that's that's really so naive that it's not worth dealing with. And individuals could phone in their telephone was as well but that's the point knowing this this this point of phoning in.
Now there was I was at the broadcast Education Association meeting and one of the news reporters and one of the big television stations said a print reporter came into our station he said I'm going on your news program. And the answer to him was You can't go on a news program you know don't even work for the station you work for a newspaper. He said I just called into the the leader of the one of the Muslims and I spoke to him he's very agitated and I've got to cool it down. The man who told the story said when when the question was who was going to let him on the news program the television news program it became quickly turned around after listening to what he said. Who was going to stop him. Yes. And he made his statement.
So Bob in view of that do you feel that the press is badly served by some of the reporters who just are so amateur that they wreck the story in danger people a lot say that's another part of it clearly.
Well we're no different than medicine and the law there are some lawyers who don't even deserve the kind of we're not we're not license and did not and we have doctors I mean who who are indeed quacks in the worst form of quackery.
And we can expect as Jim says in an unlicensed professional professional sense especially in terms of responsibility dealing with events of great magnitude that we're going to have some individuals who are going to be use their their prerogatives and privileges. This is by no means to be condoned. Not at all. And there's no way of saying that well we'll have to revise the five least I hope not revise the First Amendment. So this is a few individuals that abuse these privileges and prerogatives and may be defrocked in some way. I there's no there's no simple way out of it. This is one of the inefficiencies of pure democracy.
It's very easy to get rid of this totalitarian system would take care of it rather well but shouldn't we should we ask the publishers and the editors and the assignment people when this happens in in in a story in one of their people is involved. Should we ask them what they did about it.
I don't know if we are as publishers and editors what they did about it maybe so maybe they ought to be put under some kind of scrutiny or interrogation and so forth. But you know in part it comes down to a question of what the news is you know and what are the public interest has to be served immediately like you know we're in favor of instant everything instant coffee instant this instant that. And there's a question in my mind as to whether the public interest is is necessarily served by promptly and immediately reporting the sensational visible aspects of a particular story. Now the press I'm thinking back to the days when I used to be. Used to be a newspaper editor and you're not so easy to report the surface aspects of violence and so very difficult to explain what the issues are what lies under the surface what the political context of the matter is. I remember when Martin Luther King was in Memphis he went down there you know to take part in the in and lend his support to a sanitation worker strike. Well you got everything in the wire services story except what the hell the sanitation workers were demanding. And it was so easy you know to to to report the street scenes of which were not altogether violent there were some disturbances. But I'm just taking this as an example and the press you see. What what is the No this is the news that which lies on TARP which is visible which is happening instantaneously or is the news which the public has a right to know something which lies deeper and which is the requirement not just of reporters but of editors and publishers to know something about in my opinion they don't. Most of them don't. You you mentioned the political and social economic. I'm sure you would. The psychological psychological and sociological Certainly yeah. But you see I think most of the terrorism that we're talking about we're talking about in an abstract way here most of the terrorism I think which we are implicitly assuming that we're talking about has a political character to it has a political nature. And I think we have to understand what's happening in politics what's happening in the in the cultural and as you say social psychological lives of people which drive them toward drive them toward violence which I think television just as a matter of being an instant medium television has has contributed to this kind of thing that we're talking about here today. That is a deliberation of the people's right to know. Under the First Amendment and the question of increasing public disturbance and public and security.
So yeah what you're really saying is the public's right to know doesn't necessarily mean the public's right to see a spectacle.
And that's exactly right. You know well well our show.
Sure. Yes well I know that's a very very important part of this because not only are we dealing with what we call the psychological sociological But let's not forget what maybe the most important and powerful. And this has been true throughout history before we have the electronic media certainly and before the print. And that is that thing called economics because we're talking about television especially now in a tremendously competitive era.
And radio as well but especially television fighting for what we call ratings and the handling of of what we might call explosive or sensational or easily sensationalized actions is done not so much to inform the people. I mean that's malarkey for your god yes ascribing the film Network. Well I'll write it out recently so it isn't a question of shall we inform and enlighten the people what you call the background to Jim know the CLA point is to say how do we get a bigger audience than the other guys that are on there. And so you deal with this on a purely numerical mathematical a cold economic kind of system in which you end up a market not with us you know not with coverage and not with UN coverage so much as is just noise noise cacophony in which individuals are confused and not so much informed this is where I think the press the media perform the greatest disservice in that they say you know we gave a lot of time to this coverage.
It was remembering the. You can go back one dozen and 15 years almost to the Kennedy assassination. And the way the press comport comported itself at the at the jail when Ruby decided that he would eliminate Oswald as this was a mad scene which we became a part of and big we became part of the show. If we we we were more concerned or to do with getting the story back. I know it's important I'm aware of it you know very realistically. But we're concerned with that than we were with the actual story that was going on in a story which is which as yet has not been fully told No obviously we don't know the facts on that story yet right.
All we know is that on television Ruby shot Oswald. I guess they know that the headlines were great. Yeah.
Well it's interesting that that to get back to Mr. salon that he has a series of guidelines for the press but no one really sits down and transmitter transmits. Well has long discussions with all of their reporters I haven't heard too much about that long briefing sessions bring in psychologists historians and and social interpreters so that people get an idea no one is briefed or trying to weed out Bernard.
Don't we have enough of an audience now we have individual insanity leading to community wide traumas. Now sometimes the community as small as it was a several hundred people will say in the B'nai B'rith building or several hundred people inside of an airplane. But we don't protect the community at all at the same time that the law in a one off a Muslim case even went to the point of letting the man go back to his house when it was all over. Yes.
What is the public to make of that. Well I'd like to point out is that you're touching on something else too and that is that the question of the reporter's objectivity of the of the reporter or reporters being able to keep themselves out of the story especially a story that is hot in remember the 60s when things were kind of of active or maybe not a question of terrorism then but a question of high emotionalism and just a brief bit about that Benjamin Bradlee the executive at Washington Post was asked one time about the reporters role and he said the reporter must not only avoid emotional involvement in the appearance of it in other words no armbands no buttons.
And Richard Harwood Washington Post national news editor said he opposed any involvement by journalists in political movements he said it's a far cry from having personal feelings to being an active member of an organization promoting point of view. But in the late 60s as you remember many Act the peace demonstrators accused the post of favoring the administration in the Post account of the march on the Pentagon. Yes. Three months later when the Women's Peace Brigade marched in the capital Bradley wanted to protect himself against charges of unfairness and therefore he mobilized a large staff headed by Harwood to cover the march this is the programming as I say that you just can't program the end of the day Harwood accosted his boss and said how am I supposed to be objective it's when the first woman I saw in line of the march was my wife and the second woman I saw was your wife.
That's a wonderful story. Yeah because what what Howard is pointing out under fire so to speak is there's no such thing as objectivity and you can't program and you can't set down rules like the latter setting down or a Ben Bradley a setting down and tell people to be called objective remote.
No but there's a devil of a way to be a parent there's a difference between ambergris and perfume it's a byproduct. There's a difference between a good driver and a bad driver when you lose a tired 80 miles an hour. The good driver will do whatever he can to save himself. The bad rival reveal all his bad qualities it seems to me with journalists that.
We are learning more and more the danger of sending out less than fully competent journalists on even minor stories.
That's true that's true. Look how long it took for example took a book by Ralph Nader who indicated that the cause of many auto accidents was not the driver and was not some happenstance but was the faulty faulty manufacture. You know up up until that point very few newspapers very few radio stations very few TV stations were paying any attention to that. But I'd like to shift that conversation to another level. We're talking about terrorism as if it always came from a you know a group of misguided or hard headed individuals. And I'm thinking you know there is a form of terrorism which is exercised by the power of the state. Now suppose we shifted sides to something like the Vietnam War. How do these prescriptions that Samantha's has laid down other Bradley is talking about how do they relate to that one when dealing with what I'm really talking about now is when we're dealing with organized violence on the part of the state. You know what to all let's take the execution of Richard Gilmore. You know where you had violence. Done by the power of the state to a human life. And incidentally talking about shows that was one of the biggest shows that I ever saw. So you know when we start talking about terrorism it's a very very broad thing that we're dealing with here.
We're dealing with the violence but not violence which specifically comes from from as I say a small group of hard heads of fanatics wherever it comes from the young have or the source it is becoming increasingly prevalent because of the what we would call the veneer life that we lead this very thin veneer on a plastic base near me just as the greatest violence law exam.
Well the disorder law is such complex dependency of each individual upon the apparatus of his life that sustains his life that if you upset anything it does great harm. So I think we're going to have to whether we like it or not. And from whence from wherever the vice of the violence that we call terrorism comes it's almost a daily problem now for editors and publishers and television operators who never had to think too much about it before. Yes it is. Go ahead Bob.
Well on the Vietnam bit that you were talking about I think that very relevant in the sense that we're very selective about what we call terrorism. Yes coverage too in that in the Vietnam War and things haven't really changed but just to use that as a focal point because it's so familiar to so many of us when the terrorism applied to the Viet Cong when it applied to North Vietnamese. And that was easy to report and it was easy to digest ingest for a hell of a lot of people. And the administration thought that this was that was good news but when when it came to the tiger cages when it came to the terrorism that was applied by the Saigon government there were a great many individuals who thought to the American people should be told that after all that was the enemy. They I mean they were our allies and they were aiding the enemy then. And it was an attempt there also on the part of government to program the news.
And it seems to me again again that to it this is a deliberate attempt to say that we can we can digest this and say we can understand because we we understand you know but the people they may not be able to and I'm not saying to you Bernard that some some of the people who may not be able to take this and can handle it in the sense of understanding it the way they should and using it the way they should. But is this any different from some of our highest political officials who had the benefit of education as well great education and all who misuse even a greater portion of statistics and data and information have been fed to them. And I believe the point you made earlier of course is the key one that is no question we need better training for our journalists. We need journalists who appreciate and understand as Jim says not only the surface of what you call the veneer of a story but who understand the people and the and the lines of forces that made this story occur. And when we react very in a very Pavlovian way emotionally sensationally in headlines what we're saying very often is that we don't understand it ourself with my God isn't a sex sighting.
Well are you gentlemen. Optimistic pessimistic that journalists are going to be getting this kind of training or are you pessimistic person mystic Jim go ahead tell me why.
Oh I'm pessimistic because I don't see it happening.
I see more and more journalism schools becoming what I call would call schools of communiqu ology which leave content substance ethics morality out of the picture. I see more and more of journalism schools becoming vocational schools practical schools and not dealing with the kind of manners which Bob and I have just been referring to was essential to the to the training of competent modern journalists were living in a very very complex social and political environment and I'm talking now about a world environment. And so I'm pessimistic about this you know.
Should we drop that word journalist and look for something that is better descriptive of the profession for example should it be. I'm not trying to give you words but should it be a social reporter.
No I don't like that so much. I think it I think it's very possible to use the word journalist in an honorable fashion or reporter in an honorable fashion. No there's no Rick. It's a quaint comes back to what I said before it's a question of what the reporter the journalist the editor the publisher the news director what he realizes is the basic the substantial news in a given situation and in order to do that he has to be a man of very broad knowledge and a deep understanding and we simply don't have them we have show business people.
We do the the state on our television stations especially with some exception very rare exception when themselves to making terrorism coverage what it should not be in terms of solid foreign journalism in the sense that you have assignment editors and television stations who based their assignments on an flimsiest of evidence and who cover the world in one and a half hour one minute 15 second packages which are in a sense themselves terroristic which do violence to the news in which in which they really are you know the result is that you have so many individuals who view this these newscasts and believe that they get written for all the news that's ripped from print.
I know I hadn't heard that. Instead of all the news that's fit to print but that's OK.
That's a no I and I agree with with Bob on that then. Again and it is at the same time I said before I was pessimistic but I'm also optimistic you know because there are some things happening among reporters generally you know of I teach people who are going into the field of journalism.
I find among them you know many many young people with aspirations with ideals and so forth. The question is how they're going to be able to infuse this kind of thing into the profession which is becoming more and more monopolized that's very important to understand. And more and more therefore commercialized. Yeah I could also say something about the Newspaper Guild which I think whose voice in the product cause I think is one of the most important aspects of journalism and also I might say one of the most neglected last half minute.
Well I'm perhaps this is redundant I hope not but I believe that terrorism the way we play it becomes another just another television drama or a psycho drama. And it it almost takes on the atmosphere of being make believe because so much of what the reviewer see on television of course in the violent programs they well they know that when you get to about one minute one minute before that there's going to be a solution and everybody's going to stand up and walk away. But when we deal with terroristic situations we're dealing with human beings and human lives and a much more deeper kind of good to good ending for our discussion.
Thanks Bob Arum and Jim Higgins This is Bernard Rubin saying good night.
This transcript is machine-generated and has not been corrected. It is likely there will be errors.
- The First Amendment
- James Higgens: Censorship
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