Restricting free speech the right way

In America, for the most part, you have every right to say what you like.  But you may understand that it’s not always a good idea.

In decrying the mass media reaction to to the school shooting in Connecticut, Matt Lewis floated the idea of media control.  It was an intentionally over-the-top suggestion to demonstrate absurdity, but he has a point.  Separating recent events from the discussion, how many times have you heard (or even used) the phrase “the 24-hour news cycle” when explaining some social phenomenon or another?  It’s why our politics have been reduced to sound-bite-driven partisan hackery, it’s why Mark Sanchez has regressed as a quarterback, and it’s why “crisis communication” has become a must-have asset for big businesses.

Mama Eltringham had a saying back in the day: “The more hurry, the less speed” – meaning the faster you try to get something done, the more you tend to mess up.  Things like accuracy and thoughtful context fly out the window pretty quick when a media outlet relentlessly focused on scooping the other guys.  But accuracy and quality are essential elements for a press, so if they are flying out the window, someone will eventually come along and slam it shut.

Unimaginative libertarians hear the suggestion of “regulation” and bristle instantly.  But that can take many forms.  In the 1940s, it took the form of the Hutchins Commission, which famously outlined the duties of a  free and responsible press.  That commission (which was initiated by publishers and academics) sprang from concerns that while there were more and more people relying on the press, control of the mass media was falling into the hands of a few key players.  The key impetus behind the commission, though, was a fear that these concerns were the types of problems that, left unattended, would eventually result in rollbacks of the First Amendment.  The Hutchins Commission’s stab at self-regulation has now been taught for decades in Journalism departments across the country.

Today’s press faces the twin challenges of media consolidation and the ubiquity of information channels, including new/social media.  (The popularity of these new channels, incidentally, is a direct result of the lack of trust citizens have in the mainstream press.)  And of course there are the various strings attached to that dreaded “24-hour news cycle.”

Rollbacks on press freedom would not be good public policy, of course.  But since when has the quality of a policy ever prevented a knee-jerk implementation?  Federal law books alone have pages and pages of dumb or antiquated laws that aren’t removed for fear of public outcry.  In the right environment, media regulations could be in play – not today or tomorrow, but a bit farther down the path the press is currently on.

Before that day comes, major media outlets would be wise to put their heads together to think about how they are handling their freedom of the press, before some else thinks about it for them.

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