Monday, July 4, 2016

The State of America's First Freedoms

Graphic by Newseum/USA Today

July 4, 1776 may be when America's freedoms were born, but it wasn't until Dec. 15, 1791 -- 15 years later -- that those rights were finally defined.

And so in honor of the day (and in absence of fireworks) we thought we would spend some time as we sometimes do, ruminating on patriotic subjects.

The Bill of Rights outlined those definitions at the insistence of those at the Constitutional Convention who worried about the federal government assuming too much power. They were opposed by those who worried that defining rights might limit them.

We're going to focus on only one of those Amendments to the Constitution today for two reasons.

First, its a holiday and we recognize your attention span is limited.

Second, this is the only Amendment which comes with its own handy status report that we could find. Also, it deals with subjects close to our hearts.

The status report comes in the form of an annual survey produced by The Newseum in Washington, D.C. and USA Today.

You can read the full report by clicking here.

The findings are not so much revelatory as they are worrisome.

For example, nearly 40 percent of the Americans surveyed could not name a single freedom outlined in just the First Amendment. (One suspects those figures would be somewhat higher for the Second Amendment.)

Fully 50 percent of those without a college degree could not name a single one.

And yet these are the freedoms among which Americans hold most dear -- freedom of speech, assembly, the practice of religion and, perhaps somewhat less dear, the press.

How does a person fight to preserve rights she does not know she has?

Another worrisome statistic is the dwindling number of people who believe the freedom to practice one's religion -- no matter how extreme -- applies to all.

In 2011, 67 percent of those polled believed freedom of religion in the U.S. was absolute. In 2013, it dropped to 65 percent and it now stands at 59 percent.

Religion, as it is everywhere, is a complicated topic for Americans.

Some say America was founded as a Christian nation and, if you date that founding to the Puritans, they're right -- so long as you practiced EXACTLY their kind of Christianity. You might want to ask Roger Williams how having a different form of faith was received in Plymouth.

At the same time, however, you could date the founding of the nation to the Virginia colonies, which might lead to the argument that America was founded as a commercial nation, since those folks were there as part of an investment.

Or, we could stick with the founding document, which uses different language for
religion than it does the other rights.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom
Notice that with freedom of speech, press, assembly and petitioning the government, the First Amendment says no law shall prohibit them.

But with religion, the primary fear was an official government religion. It already had a toehold in North America, with Virginia landholders being taxed to support the Anglican church.

Luckily, the founders were among that increasingly rare group of Americans capable of learning from history and its past mistakes.

They were familiar with history of hundreds of years of religious wars in Europe,
The practice of government-sponsored religion,
Spain, circa 1480
the Protestant reformation, the Spanish Inquistion, the Crusades, and they knew the dangers inherent in dictating belief.

Today, we seem to be drifting dangerously closer and closer to judging, jailing, prosecuting or killing people for their beliefs, instead of their actions.

We are also drifting in the direction of a country in which accusation equals guilt.

Witness the growing number of people who believe the government should have the right to force companies to unlock smartphones to allow for the examination of data collected by those accused of terrorist acts.

In the survey, a majority, 66 percent, said government should have the right to force companies to provide that information.

Let's remember that accusation is not proof and it is not conviction, and that there are rules for search warrants.

Prosecutors must usually provide a judge with some trail of evidence that provides a valid reason for the search, as well as a general idea of is being sought. And no one calls up the company that made the front door lock, or the lock on the file cabinet and says you must provide the keys.

However, in further proof that the majority of Americans are irony-challenged, almost the exact same percentage of those surveyed replied that they are "concerned about the privacy of personal information on the Internet."

In other words, Americans believe the right to privacy of information on their electronic devices does NOT apply to those accused, but not convicted, performing a terrorist act. Accusations are easy to make, convictions less so.

Rights are there to be applied to and protect all, particularly individuals and those not in the majority. THAT is supposed to be the American way.

The Donald captured as he is overcome by a spirit
of bi-partisan compromise.
And speaking of terror -- Donald Trump.

See? Your heart jumped there for a minute.

Yes, we've come to that sad portion of the survey where we deal with freedom of the press and the public's increasingly dim view of how that freedom is practiced.

Just over half the Americans surveyed -- 51 percent -- believe the media is giving Trump too much coverage.

This one is a hard one for those of us in the media. Our first reaction is "ONLY 51 percent? My God it's All-Trump all the time!"

But there is a part of our brain that says, you can't let the outrageous, false and consistently contradictory things he says go unremarked. We hope, pray, it will lead to Americans rising up in opposition to the xenophobic, homophobic, Islamophobic things he says regularly.

Instead, a disturbing number of Americans are embracing those statements and rather than being Trump's revealers, we have become his enablers.

Such inherent self-conflict is probably one of the factors behind the finding that very few Americans who responded to the survey believe the press reports in a bias-free manner.

Less than one-quarter of those surveyed believes the media "attempts" to report the news without bias.

We've apparently abandoned the idea that bias-free reporting is actually possible, and now we're delving into motivations, with most Americans believing we don't even try to be bias free.

We have often told anyone who asked, that of course we are not without bias. We're human beings, a species generally recognized to hold beliefs, views and character traits.

For example, longtime Mercury Reporter Evan Brandt is a smart-ass, plain and simple; whereas Fox News morning anchor Steve Doocy is simply an ass with a silly name.

What matters, in our view, is whether the reporting is fair. There is a difference.

Reporting may lead to a conclusion, often the result of doing due diligence to understand all the sides of an issue.

Some believe reporters should give equal time to both sides of an issue. That smart-ass Evan Brandt has even found himself counting sentences when covering political campaigns to ensure equal time.

But sometimes the close examination of an issue reveals that one side is just wrong, or stupid, or dangerous.

Then a reporter must ask herself whether or not her first obligation is to the truth as she has come to see it as a result of more research than most of her readers (listeners/viewers) will undertake; or to a bias-free standard we must truthfully acknowledge is impossible to achieve.

In our view, the answer is to err on the side of truth, with the understanding that yes, truth is often subjective, which is why the attempt must be made to be as fair as possible.

When the muckraking reporters of McClure's magazine -- Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker -- revealed the abuses of Standard Oil, political corruption and union violence, they took a side.

They revealed the truth. But their careful documentation of that truth gave them credibility such that Americans were convinced what they wrote was true. And America changed for the better as a result.

But in yet another example of America's irony-challenged character, although most survey results indicate the media is biased, nearly three-quarters of them -- 73 percent -- believe the media is "very" or "somewhat" accurate in its coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign.

It is also ironic that as more and more Americans drift away from professional journalism as a source of information, more and more of them believe that the media should act as "government watchdogs" -- fully 71 percent, up 2 percent from the last survey.

This particular function of journalism is close to that smart-ass Evan Brandt's heart. In fact, he considers it the single most important function of journalism.

Your Local Government Watchdog at work
In fact, he has more than once been heard to say "the First Amendment was not adopted to give us the inalienable right to cover car crashes and fires."

That people love to know about those things is undeniable. But as he sees it, that
coverage is what pays the bills so the expensive, time-consuming, necessary and singularly less-sexy work of making sure elected (and appointed) government officials behave honestly, honorably and do not squander tax dollars gets done.

But as newspapers -- the root source of so much of the news in the world -- struggle to survive, it begs the question: "Why do you want us to be government watchdogs if you'd rather watch cat videos on Facebook?"

It must be America's sense of irony.

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