The Washington Times-Herald

December 21, 2013

Two stories put focus on First Amendment

By Nate Smith
Times Herald

---- — Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

If everyone remembers their U.S. history class, the previous text is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Adopted in 1791, the amendment is part of famous Bill of Rights, one of the first pieces of legislation in the world to guarantee civil liberties to its citizens.

This week, there were two stories in the news that had people invoking the most sacred of amendments, but some missed the mark on what the amendment means.

The first story was last Sunday, as the decorated CBS news show 60 Minutes took us inside the National Security Agency, the agency under fire after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked part of the agency’s far-reaching spying program to reporter Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras.

I’m a fan of 60 Minutes. When I was a kid, it was kind of sad because I knew when I saw that ticking stopwatch, I knew I had to go back to school the next day. Later on, I came to appreciate the interesting stories it provided. I studied the program and it’s history in college when I was training for my current profession.

But the piece on the NSA Sunday, led by correspondent John Miller, was rife with problems. Like many journalists watching the two segments, I did not see the good reporting I have come to expect with 60 Minutes.

In its place was what we call in newspaper land a puff piece, or fluff. Sometimes people like the fluff and sometimes you need to be hard.

There’s a whole laundry list of issues I could go into, but the biggest problem I had with the piece was Miller himself. This so-called insider was hand-picked by the NSA due to his previous roles for the Los Angeles Police Department, the FBI and the Director of National Intelligence. In fact, it was reported that Miller will be heading to the New York Police Department for a job soon. Correspondent Steve Kroft would have held NSA’s collective feet to the fire and done a better job than Miller.

The First Amendment guarantees the freedom of the press but with that freedom comes the immense responsibility of protecting the public interest and being the tellers for an informed democracy. The show 60 Minutes is one of those cornerstones of protecting the responsibility. The NSA piece, along with correspondent Lara Logan’s immense mistake while trying to find what really happened in Benghazi, Libya, has shown cracks.

But I believe in 60 Minutes. The show took a big hit in the 1990s when it made mistakes in the reporting of Jeff Wigand, the key witness in the case against big tobacco. The case and the errors were depicted in the film “The Insider.” Sixty Minutes bounced back from that lapse and I believe they will bounce back again.

The other First Amendment story worth noting came Wednesday with cable channel A&E suspended Phil Robertson, the patriarch of Duck Commander and the show “Duck Dynasty,” following comments he made about people who are gay and black to GQ Magazine.

Robertson backtracked on the comments later, but the network suspended him indefinitely. The suspension created a firestorm on social media, supporting his views and claiming violations of his First Amendment rights.

As Robertson himself likes to say on the show, “Nope.” The amendment is for government not to limit speech, not a private entity that Robertson does business with, like A&E. In fact, his rights were clearly used in the GQ piece as he espoused his view.

Robertson’s views are not the issue here with me. I watch the show and his views on some aspects of society, including gay rights, are pretty well known. As a reader of my columns will know, I don’t agree with his views, but the man has every right to say how he feels and he did exercise his First Amendment rights.

What people got upset with were the consequences of his First Amendment exercises. As an old professor used to say, “My rights end where your face begins.” The same logic holds true in the exercise of free speech. Whether one stands with Robertson or not, the network did not create any constitutional dilemma. Frankly, I think the upcoming season needs new life pumped into it. There’s only so many ways Willie and Si can look like fools, but I hope Phil comes back.

Of course, there was a third story in the press I omitted that also touched on the First Amendment, the issue raised by FOX News’ Megyn Kelly on whether Jesus and Santa Claus are white. I’m not touching that one. There’s too many ways I could end up on Santa’s naughty list if I went there.

Personal note: I write this column inspired by the memory of former professor Ronald Roat, who suddenly passed away in Michigan last month.

Professor Roat taught me and many journalism students at the University of Southern Indiana to respect the power of the written word and how to make it in a tough industry.

He loved discussing the state of journalism, along with being an accomplished teacher, writer, editor and mystery novelist. He was one of my mentors and my friend. He will be missed not only by myself, but an entire fraternity of journalists in southwestern Indiana and elsewhere.

Nate Smith discusses these stories, along with items he is working on and whatever pops in his head on his Twitter feed at @NateSmithWTH or on Facebook at facebook.com/natesmithwth. Email him at nsmith@washtimesherald.com.