The Scary Danger of “Fake News” Talk

Fake news? The press is the enemy of the people? I am up to here with that.

newspapersDenigration of the press may be a way to excite some (happily minimal) percentage of Americans, but for all Americans – Democrats, Republicans, geezers, millennials and certainly everyone wanting to preserve our fragile, shared democracy – it is beyond dangerous.

I have been a newspaper/magazine writer for well over a half-century. I have made a lot of mistakes (most recently I omitted one 12-year-old from a list of grandchildren in a feature story; whew!) But I have NEVER knowingly written an untrue sentence. Anything not verifiably correct, furthermore, has been corrected by an editor. (We have now even cleaned up my act about the missing granddaughter with a follow-up story in the same newspaper.)

So, is attacking the free press just playing politics, or is it dangerous? Look at Turkey. At a conference in Budapest just three years ago I sat next to a university professor from Istanbul who said she could face arrest when she returned. “And if I were a journalist,” Demonstrations in Turkeyshe said “I’d be far more afraid.” Looking at the videos of journalists – and others – being led to trials that will most certainly lead to long sentences at best is a sobering view of where Turkey is now, under an autocrat (whom the U.S. theoretically supports.)

PBS News/Hour was recently anchored for one week by science correspondent Miles O’Brien, who has been a part of my family (it’s complicated) for more than a quarter century. I have not always agreed – familial love aside – with the personal choices this distinguished journalist has made. But I’m willing to bet he has NEVER written or spoken a knowingly false word in reporting the news. He is in a list of personal journalistic friends & heroes that include Roger Mudd, Charles McDowell, Belva Davis and a number of contemporary journalists – Michael Fitzgerald (Boston,) Caitlin Kelly (NY,) that list could go on. Not one of these news reporters ever has, or ever would, write or speak a word that was fake.

Here is what the First Amendment says:

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.

Floyd Abrams

Floyd Abrams

Author Floyd Abrams was in San Francisco recently plugging his new book The Soul of the First Amendment. The talk, moderated by U.C.Berkeley Dean of the School of Journalism Ed Wasserman, involved reviews of cases – and they are legion – Abrams has argued, and wide-ranging talk about the freedoms guaranteed by the first amendment. But one opening remark, almost a throw-away, stuck with me. Abrams mentioned that President Trump’s comments about Mexicans, Muslims and other groups would be criminal in other democracies, citing cases in Canada and Finland that had resulted in criminal convictions for lesser remarks.

That, though, is not what most distresses this longtime reporter. I understand and appreciate the defense of free speech, even terrible speech with which I strongly disagree. (Think Westboro Baptist “Church.”) What makes my all-American heart ache is the speech that seeks to undermine our free press. If enough people can be led to distrust the press, an autocratic leader doesn’t need to bother throwing journalists in jail.

Think about it. Most reporters, commentators, broadcasters are fairly bright men and women who could make a lot more money doing something else. Do they go into the news business because of a passion to follow a story, to find the truth and set it free?

Or are they just in it for the fake?

Democracy is a fragile concept. After all these years, I hope ours doesn’t break.

SCOTUS animal cruelty ruling draws human ire

Film producers Chris Palmer and Peter Kimball take issue with the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of animal cruelty film seller Robert Stevens a few days ago. In an op ed piece appearing in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, the two decidedly more respected and respectable members of the human community (Palmer heads the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University; Kimball is writer/director of the wildlife film Badger Insurance: The Plight of the North American Badger) argue that “videos of dog-fighting and animal mutilation — created not to educate or inform but merely to titillate — have no constitutional protection.”

The Court, Palmer and Kimball say, “has gone too far in protecting the free speech of those who would profit from films depicting wanton and malicious cruelty to animals solely for customers’ entertainment. We believe that these types of videos deserve no legal protection whatsoever.”

The case in question, United States vs. Stevens, centered on Robert Stevens, a purveyor of the video series “Dogs of Velvet and Steel.” Stevens produced and sold videos of pit bulls engaging in dogfights and viciously attacking other animals. These videos include graphic depictions of torture and brutality, including a pit bull mutilating the lower jaw of a live pig. In January 2005, Stevens was convicted of violating the Animal Cruelty Act (1999), which criminalized the trafficking of depictions of animal cruelty, except those with “serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value.” A federal appeals court overturned Stevens’ conviction and ruled that the animal cruelty law violated his First Amendment right to free speech. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling.

The fundamental question is this: Does the Animal Cruelty Act violate the First Amendment right of freedom of speech? Certainly, the right to free speech is one of the paramount freedoms in our society. Our country was founded on the principle that people should not be persecuted for voicing unpopular opinions. Naturally, in order to be effective, this freedom protects disturbing and offensive speech.

However, there are very specific types of speech that we, as a society, have deemed so despicable and so lacking in merit that they do not deserve protection, among them child pornography, obscenity, threats and incitement of violence. Animal cruelty should be one of these unprotected categories. As Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, wrote, “We wouldn’t allow the sale of videos of actual child abuse or murder staged for the express purpose of selling videos of such criminal acts.” There is no reason to ignore depictions of animal cruelty while rightfully criminalizing parallel depictions of child abuse.

The Supreme Court is not in the habit of overturning itself, but in decisions such as Tuesday’s ruling one hopes for quick reversal of fortunes of the animal kingdom. As long as there are depraved people getting some sort of kicks out of the suffering of others, there will be shameless people like Robert Stevens ready to benefit.

True/Slant Contributor Rick Ungar makes a good point that First Amendment rights must be carefully protected. In a post immediately following the ruling he wrote:

While I am as disgusted by these videos as most, the majority does have a point. The law, as drafted, could result in unintended consequences – going so far as to ban the depiction of bullfights as graphically painted in Ernest Hemingway novels. When we’re talking about first amendment rights, Congress is obligated to be careful in constructing laws that can produce an unintended chilling effect on so important of a right.

Though I’m a Hemingway fan and occasional Spain-o-phile, I’d have as hard a time arguing for bullfights as for dog-fights. Went to one a few years back, had to leave before they dragged the bull out. Ungar and others suggest that the answer to this human rights v animal rights issue will lie in enactment of narrow laws banning specific cruelties such as the “crush videos” (women in high heels stomping small animals) cited by Justice Samuel Alito in his dissenting opinion.

This space hopes for a fast track on such legislation. One way or another, barbaric acts need to be banned. For my part, a ban on Robert Stevens wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

Supreme Court gets it wrong with animal cruelty ruling.

Animal rights & SCOTUS opinions

Finding oneself in agreement with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito can be an alarming development in itself, but it’s hard not to agree at least in part with his dissenting statement in yesterday’s 8-to-1 Supreme Court decision.

In a major First Amendment ruling, the Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a federal law that made it a crime to create or sell dogfight videos and other depictions of animal cruelty.

Justice Alito wrote, in his dissension, that the now-struck statute was enacted “not to suppress speech, but to prevent horrific acts of animal cruelty — and in particular, the creation and commercial exploitation of ‘crush videos,’ a form of depraved entertainment that has no social value.” I’ve never watched a crush video, and certainly have no plans to do so.  It is at least heartening to know that Justice Alito has this much heart. (It’s not been evident in some of his earlier rulings.)

The specific case that brought about yesterday’s ruling, exploitation of pit bull fights through sales of dog fight videos, is about a different form of cruelty to animals. Stepping back a little it’s possible to see what the court was protecting: not any right to commit barbaric acts, but too-broad application of First Amendment rights.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority in the 8-to-1 decision, said that the law had created “a criminal prohibition of alarming breadth” and that the government’s aggressive defense of the law was “startling and dangerous.”

The decision left open the possibility that Congress could enact a narrower law that would pass constitutional muster. But the existing law, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, covered too much speech protected by the First Amendment.

Hopefully, a new and narrower law will come soon.

When President Bill Clinton signed the bill, he expressed reservations, prompted by the First Amendment, and instructed the Justice Department to limit prosecutions to “wanton cruelty to animals designed to appeal to a prurient interest in sex.”

The law, said Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States, “almost immediately dried up the crush video industry.”

But prosecutions under the law appear to have been pursued only against people accused of trafficking in dogfighting videos.

Chief Justice Roberts concluded his majority opinion by suggesting that a more focused law “limited to crush videos and other depictions of extreme animal cruelty” might survive First Amendment scrutiny.

Mr. Pacelle, of the Humane Society, called for a legislative response to Tuesday’s ruling. “Congress should within a week introduce narrowly crafted legislation,” he said, “to deal with animal crush videos and illegal animal fighting activities.”

Some years ago I was approached to do a story on cockfighting, then legal in a number of states. I knew the wife of the man who suggested the piece, the purpose of which was to explain what a fine and macho “sport” this was. Utterly amazed at the names of those cockfighting enthusiasts whom he had lined up for me to interview (after the fight) — and no way was I going to attend such an event — I sought out a number of them and asked for public comment on why cockfighting should be supported. The article, exposing a number of otherwise respectable men of the local community, brought widespread condemnation upon my head for spreading such trash. Nobody seemed to notice the names behind the trash. I thought it would embarrass the spokesmen. Sometimes free speech protects those who are beyond embarrassment.

I, for one, cannot quite understand why Robert Stevens, convicted of selling dog-fighting videos and now acquitted, is not embarrassed to have his picture and his business practices in the morning paper.

Supreme Court Rejects Ban on Animal Cruelty Videos – NYTimes.com.

American rage: We the People, and our legislative leaders, are out of control

On the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX), angered by Rep. Bart Stupak’s (D-Mich) support of the health reform, called the bill a “baby-killer.” Protesters screamed racial epithets at Reps. John Lewis (D-GA) and Andre Carson (D-Ind) and yelled anti-gay slurs at Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.) This comes not that long after Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouted “You lie!” at the President of the United States during a speech to Congress.

Just in case anyone is inclined toward civility, the Rush Limbaughs (“we must defeat these bastards”) and the Glenn Becks (only “losers” need help…) of the world are fanning every little flame around. The rants and rages are not limited to right-wingers, it’s just that those are the most prominent these days, what with congressmen standing on the balcony whipping up the crowd — while anti-anti-reformers shout their own epithets.

All this rage may not be healthy. A recent ‘Personal Journal’ piece in the Wall Street Journal explored the idea that anger is, in many cases, an illness unto itself.

Scream at the boss? Snap at a colleague? Throw your cell phone into your @#$%%&* computer monitor? If so, you may find yourself headed to anger-management classes, which have become an all-purpose antidote for fit-throwing celebrities, chair-throwing coaches, vandals, road ragers, delinquent teens, disruptive airline passengers, and obstreperous employees.

Demand for such programs is coming from courts seeking alternatives to jail sentences and companies hoping to avoid lawsuits and office blowups. Aware that high-pressure jobs can make for hot tempers, some professions offer pre-emptive anger management. A few state bar associations now require “civility” training for lawyers renewing their licenses. And as of last year, hospitals must have programs for “disruptive” physicians as a condition of accreditation.

Programs run the gamut from $300-an-hour private therapists to one-day intensive seminars, weekly group sessions or online courses with no human interaction. Many advertise that they satisfy court requirements—even if all they offer is six CDs and a certificate of completion.

It’s not clear if the programs work, as few studies have analyzed their effectiveness. There are no licensing requirements for anger-management trainers—anyone can open a business. And since participants don’t usually sign up voluntarily, trainers say it’s possible to complete a program without actually changing one’s behavior.

Part of the problem is that professionals can’t agree whether a pattern of angry outbursts signals a mental illness or simply a behavior issue. As a result, people who need psychiatric help may instead get shunted into a short-term anger-management course. Employers and courts may not adequately evaluate people before sending them for anger interventions, nor provide sufficient follow-up.

There have been some notable failures—the Columbine shooters, for example, attended anger-management classes before their 1999 killing spree. Amy Bishop, the University of Alabama biologist who allegedly killed three colleagues and wounded three more last month, had been advised by prosecutors to take anger-management classes after an earlier incident in 2002. Her lawyer says he doesn’t know if she did.

It is hardly the same, but the rage that exploded into these tragedies is still akin to the shouted obscenities of recent political scenes. Maybe all those shouters aren’t mentally ill, just badly behaved. Maybe they are protected by the First Amendment. Maybe the anger and ugliness is, as more than a few defenders maintain, perfectly excusable in response to “totalitarian tactics” or other perceived wrongs. But does that make it right? Or worth the loss of civility?

Maybe a little anger management — and civility — would be a good idea.

Demand for Anger -Management Grows. But Does It Work? – WSJ.com.