Resolution One 2006

Resolution One: A Motion To Object to the Bush Administration’s Anti-Press Policies and Practices

Moved: Dr. David T.Z. Mindich, St. Michael’s
Endorsed: Resolutions Committee, Standing Committee on Professional Freedom and Responsibility

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Preamble
The relationship between the presidency and press has always been uneasy. This tension is both unavoidable and generally salutary: When each side conducts its duties with honesty and integrity, both hold the power of the other in check. It is difficult to find a period in American history in which this mutual opposition did not exist.

However, it has come to pass that the current administration has engaged in a number of practices and has enacted a series of severe and extraordinary policies that attack the press specifically and by extension, democracy itself:

A working democracy requires a free press that is muscular in its reporting. It requires a press that holds leaders accountable for their actions. It requires a press that contrasts leaders’ words with their actions. It requires a press that uncovers errors and wrongdoing by employing named and unnamed sources. We believe the actions of the current administration compromise these press functions.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. However, American press history has been marked by periods in which press freedoms have retreated. The Alien and Sedition Acts of the 1790s represented one such period. Another was during the Civil War, in which journalists were jailed en masse because of dissent. The Espionage Act of 1917 paved the way for encroachments on press freedom (see Schenk v. United States). In each of these periods, politicians, judges, and scholars came to see, at least in hindsight, that anti-press policies in the name of national unity produced real harm to democracy itself: We believe that the Bush administration’s anti-press policies and practices represent another major period.

Whereas the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s membership is troubled by the following policies and practices:

1. The Bush administration’s response to press requests for information. While we do not take sides on the issue of whether “enemy combatants” should be detained without charges by the United States government, we are troubled by the administration’s failure to provide names and other vital information. When a democratically elected government holds people indefinitely without charges, it is the press’s role to shine light on the practice so that citizens and their elected representatives can debate that policy and decide its merits. Until the AP won a FOIA request in March 2006, names and other vital information about Guantanamo detainees were withheld by the Bush administration.(1) Around the time the AP won its FOIA request, other news organizations were reporting on an even more secretive prison run by the United States, in Bagram, Afghanistan.(2)

2. The Bush administration’s use of staged town meetings. One of the most important responsibilities of the nonpartisan press is that it should include a wide range of political opinions so that the views of political leaders can be held up to scrutiny. That way, citizens can debate the merits of these views and choose one over others or develop policy based on a combination of ideas. Part of this process involves an open exchange between citizens and their elected representatives. While every administration since the birth of the 20th century has sought to manage the photo opportunities of its leaders’ interactions with citizens, a practice that increased markedly in the presidencies of the TV era, the current administration has taken this practice to an unprecedented level. During the 2004 presidential campaign, for example, the Bush campaign frequently excluded non-supporters from campaign events. This practice continued through Bush’s trips to promote his Social Security agenda. Even “informal” discussions with soldiers have been staged.(3)

3. The Bush administration’s vision of the government as a private domain. From the start of the administration’s tenure, when Dick Cheney’s office refused to reveal industry leaders who attended a meeting about energy policy, the administration maintained a practiced silence about many aspects of government. In March 2006, the Associated Press reported that many FOIA requests are unanswered or needlessly delayed.(4)

4. The Bush administration’s practice of massive reclassification of documents. (5) A February 2006 article in the New York Times outlines a secret plan to reclassify documents, many of which had been declassified and publicly available for years. While national security dictates that some documents be secret, the wholesale reclassification of documents makes it more difficult to understand and evaluate the workings of government.

5. The Bush administration’s support of policies that weaken the multiplicity of voices on a local and nation scale. The administration, through its appointees at the FCC, has sought new rules that allow large corporations to consolidate local media outlets under one corporate umbrella. We call on the administration to support FCC rules that preserve local ownership and competition.

6. The Bush administration’s policy of not allowing photographs of coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq to be released. An essential part of a public’s deliberation of the worth of any war is the consideration of the human costs involved. Denying the images essentially denies the humanity of the U.S. servicemen and servicewomen who made the ultimate sacrifice. Their lives should be part of the public debate.

7. The Bush administration’s use of propaganda, including video news releases. We support the language of Boston University’s Journalism Department’s 2005 resolution “condemning fraudulent use of video news releases”: “[We] condemn the use of ‘phony’ reporters hired by the government to perform in VNRs where their affiliation with government is unstated, and urge the Administration to translate the President’s words into action by ceasing this practice at once.” [see Appendix]

8. The Bush administration’s use of bribes and payments to columnists and other opinion makers, both in the United States and abroad. We believe, as the nonpartisan General Accounting Office found in October 2005,(6) that the payments to columnists, including a reported $400,000 to Armstrong Williams, violated laws against “covert propaganda.” The White House even credentialed James Dale Guckert, a phony reporter, under a pseudonym, Jeff Gannon. The fake journalist, granted extraordinary access by the White House, in turn asked softball questions of the administration, including, “How are you going to work with people [the Democrats] who seem to have divorced themselves from reality? “Recent reports have shown that the administration has also bribed journalists in Iraq and has planted fake news stories there.(7) The administration claims that the war is being fought in part to promote democracy in the Middle East, but these practices are antithetical to that aim. We believe that the Bush administration’s policy of bribing reporters and using fake journalism is a threat to democracy.

9. The Bush administration’s manipulation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. When the Bush administration appointed a new chairman of the CPB and supported his efforts to correct the “slant” of the broadcasts, what it was engaging in was essentially a putsch of responsible journalism. Responsible journalism of the left, right, and center seeks to interrogate power and hold the ideas of the various political parties up to scrutiny. When powerful interests seek to neuter responsible journalism, democracy itself suffers.

10. The Bush administration’s using the courts to pressure journalists to give up their sources and to punish them for obtaining leaked information. According to a March 2006 article in the Washington Post, recent actions by the Bush administration have included “several FBI probes, a polygraph investigation inside the CIA and a warning from the Justice Department that reporters could be prosecuted under espionage laws.”(8) We believe that attacking journalists in this way can upset the power relationship between the government and the press, and could eventually turn reporters from watchdogs to lapdogs.

Therefore, be it resolved:

1. That the membership of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication urges the Bush administration to abandon its anti-press policies, and urges people who value journalism’s role in our democracy to take notice and take action. Specifically, we urge journalism and mass communication departments to consider actions of their own including, perhaps, an endorsement of this document, and

2. That the president of the AEJMC be directed to disseminate this resolution to:
a. President George W. Bush
b. Vice President Richard B. Cheney
c. The membership of the AEJMC
d. The College Media Advisers Association
e. The general news media and trade press, and
f. Any and all such other organizations that relate to Freedom of the Press and the First Amendment.

Postscript
For more information about this document, contact David T. Z. Mindich, Saint Michael’s College <dmindich@smcvt.edu>. The author thanks Mitchell Stephens, New York University, for substantive comments.

Appendix

Unanimous Resolution of the Boston University Journalism Faculty Condemning Fraudulent Use of Video News Releases
March 22, 2005

As educators of the next generation of American journalists, we the journalism faculty at the College of Communication, Boston University:

Recognize the need of citizens in a democracy for information that is accurate, unbiased and independently gathered and presented;

Recognize the vital need of government to communicate with its citizens and the useful role print and video news releases (VNRs) can play in this process;

Recognize the obligation of news organizations to identify clearly the origin of any editorial material provided by government, business, interest group or any source other than their own news gathering or that of affiliated news organizations;

Recognize the obligation of government to avoid using VNRs for purposes of political advocacy or propaganda;

Recognize the need to avoid presenting the material in a way that invites public confusion as to its source;

Note the President’s recent statement that acknowledges the need to maintain a clear line of distinction between journalists and members of the government or Administration;

Condemn the use of “phony” reporters hired by the government to perform in VNRs where their affiliation with government is unstated, and urge the Administration to translate the President’s words into action by ceasing this practice at once;

Urge the Administration to identify and cease other practices with respect to VNRs that run a substantial risk of misleading the public;

Condemn the deliberate use by television news outlets of material knowingly obtained from the Administration without clear identification of its origin, and urge all members of the media to cease this deceptive practice at once.

We invite colleagues at other journalism schools and departments to endorse the Boston University Resolution.

NOTES:
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(1) Associated Press, “Pentagon identifies Guantanamo detainees,” March 3, 2006. http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/nationworld/bal-gitmo0303,0,879609.story?coll=bal-home-headlines

(2) Tim Golden and Eric Schmitt, “A Growing Afghan Prison Rivals Bleak Guantanamo,” New York Times, February 26, 2006.

(3) New York Times, “In a Scripted TV Scene, Soldiers Reassure Bush,” New York Times, October 13, 2005, p. 14.

(4) Martha Mendoza, “Agencies Missing FOIA deadlines, AP Finds, Associated Press, March 12, 2006.

(5) Scott Shane, “U.S. Reclassifies Many Documents in Secret Review,” New York Times, February 21, 2006.

(6) The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, “GAO says Bush team engaged in illegal ‘covert propaganda,”‘ October 4, 2005. http://www.rcfp.org/news/2005/1004 bct-gaosay.html

(7) Anne E. Komblut and Philip Shenon, “Columnist Resigns His Post, Admitting Lobbyist Paid Him,” New York Times, December 17, 2005, p. 14.

(8) Dan Eggen, “White House Trains Efforts on Media Leaks,” Washington Post, March 5, 2006. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dvn/content/article/2006/03/04/AR2006030400867.html. We have also seen the FBl’s investigation of the papers of the late Jack Anderson in April 2006 [Scott Shane, "F.B.l. Is Seeking To Search Papers Of Dead Reporter," New York Times, April 19, 2006, p. 1] and the issuance by a U.S. attorney in Los Angeles of subpoenas to compel journalists to reveal the identities of confidential sources in the baseball steroids scandal, [Adam Liptak, "U.S. Subpoenas Newspaper For Sources in Steroids Case," New York Times, May 9, 2006, p. 23].

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Offered to the business meeting of the annual convention of the Association for Education and Journalism and Mass Communication, Aug. 4, 2006.

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