New Blend of Media Expands Free Speech, Press

gene-polcinski-050607.jpg Commentary
Inside the First Amendment

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center vice president/executive director

The 21st century dynamics of free press and free speech are an intriguing blend of traditional news media, new technology, personal messages and even entertainment programming.

And, considering the success of President-elect Barack Obama’s use of e-mail, text messages and social-networking sites like facebook.com in his campaign, First Amendment scholars may be revising contemporary definitions of assembly and petition as well.

Consider these post-Election Day observations, based on reports from colleagues at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and news reports elsewhere:

  • Modern-day “town criers” brought Election Night news in a personal way: News reports said more than 1.2 billion text messages were sent between 7 p.m. and midnight on Nov. 4, as broadcasters and Web sites reported state-by-state results and then the news broke around 11 p.m. ET that Sen. Obama would be the 44th president of the United States.
  • Mainstream print media still matter, but in new ways: Beginning at 7 a.m. ET on Nov. 5, Newseum visitors and tourists stood as many as five deep at 555 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W. to examine newspaper front pages from the 50 states and overseas reporting Obama’s historic victory. Television crews followed. It was a unique New Age experience — people posing with printed newspapers, in front of broadcast media, for cell-phone photos to be sent wirelessly to Web sites.
  • Journalism is not only “the first draft of history,” but also the historical memento: USA Today sold an extra 380,000 copies post-election and more online since. The Washington Post printed 1,050,000 commemorative editions. The Chicago Tribune printed more than 1.1 million copies of the Nov. 5 edition, about 410,000 more than its regular run. The Los Angeles Times printed at least 200,000 extra copies. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had to reprint five times for a total of 248,000 extra newspapers.
  • TV ratings were shared in a new way: ABC News topped all Election Night competitors with 13.2 million viewers, but cable’s CNN came in second at 12.3 million. NBC’s “SNL Presidential Bash” on Monday night was the network’s top entertainment program for the week, with 14.4 million viewers. Comedy Central’s “Indecision 2008” special alone drew 3.1 million.

In the nation’s earliest years, pamphleteers like Thomas Paine, partisan newspaper editors and publishers like Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Bache and a host of Colonial orators in town halls and on village greens fueled debate and provided information to the public. It was that politicized press and speech, and a desire to protect the public’s right to challenge and petition its government for change, that prompted the 45 words of the First Amendment.

Fast-forward to 2008. A  Nov. 3 article by Adam Nagourney of The New York Times was premised on the idea that the Obama Internet strategy has “rewritten the rules on how to reach voters, raise money, organize supporters, manage the news media, track and mold public opinion, and wage — and withstand — political attacks.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas of The Washington Post has been researching “Triple O,” the nickname for Obama’s online operation, and its reach to new groups of voters such as students and its fund-raising success. He told a Newseum audience in October that the model for this 2008 effort was none other than Sen. John McCain’s 2000 campaign’s use of the Net to attract donations.

Vargas says the Web is outpacing television as the source for news and information: “The press as we know it has been governed by images and sound bites. I think we’re transitioning away from the era of sound bites … . The way we interact with news has fundamentally changed. People want to talk back. People want to feel as if they’re represented.”

Not all the “talk back” on Election Night was positive. A University of Texas football player posted an election-related comment including a racial slur in response to a facebook.com template question: “What are you doing right now?” After his comment went out widely on the Web beyond his intended audience, the sophomore player was expelled from the team despite an apology for his “bad judgment” in posting the remark.

That’s how the First Amendment works: In any era, it protects you from prior government restraint, but you get to deal with the results of what you say — be that winning a presidential election or commenting on the victor.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: [email protected].