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From AJR,   October 1997  issue

The First Amendment's Unfinished Business   

Sentinel Under Siege:
The Triumphs and Troubles
of America's Free Press

By Stanley E. Flink
Westview Press


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


Sentinel Under Siege:
The Triumphs and Troubles
of America's Free Press
By Stanley E. Flink
Westview Press
310 pages; $25

The First Amendment enjoys such powerful iconic status that we too readily romanticize it. We treat it as a giant redwood tree, permanent and impregnable, rather than what it really is, a brittle flower, vulnerable and still maturing.

hat is the message Stan-

ley Flink underlines in this thoughtful book, and he makes a persuasive case that free press and free speech are works in progress, not in
granite.

A magazine writer, network producer and journalism professor, Flink provides a careful historical review of press issues and a concerned current status report. What makes "Sentinel Under Siege" most special is Flink's view of the First Amendment as "unfinished business" and his range of recommendations for change.

Free expression has never been entirely secure, he asserts, and there's no reason we should consider it secure today. Flink shows how women and minorities were long denied full privileges; how an Espionage Act squelched speech during World War I ("One man was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for reading the Declaration of Independence in public"); and how late in this century the federal government was using national security pretexts to silence dissent.

"It was not until the 1960s that the Bill of Rights was actually declared applicable to all Americans in every state," he writes.

Flink also demonstrates that questions of integrity and responsibility have dogged the press from its beginnings. "Only very rarely..during the early years was there a perception that the press was an important ethical resource," he reports.

By the mid-19th century, many of today's concerns about the press were already evident. Newspapers were ducking ugly issues (slavery, for example) in favor of happier news, which was already "a commodity to be valued more for its profits than for its importance in keeping the voters well informed." Coverage "was increasingly shaped by advertiser attitudes" and "vigorous monitoring of government or corporation actions diminished."

Social service journalism, as we expect it, didn't really emerge until this century, with a vigorous push 50 years ago from the Hutchins Commission's demand that media provide better service and access to citizens.

Given our history, Flink believes, the commitment to service journalism remains precarious, imperiled by ever-mounting pressures of corporatization, advertiser clout and declining public trust.

He calls today's situation a crisis, and lists several First Amendment areas where "serious unfinished business remains":

the costs and inhibitions associated with libel;

the broad problem of deciding where free expression begins and ends online;

and the never-ending "vexatious question of profits versus ethics."

Flink gamely struggles with these issues, offering ideas ranging from specific recommendations to general ruminations.

Specifically, for example, he suggests that libel cases end with judgments of blame but no assessed financial damages.

More broadly, he calls for vastly increased media self-criticism and self-regulation, including the resurrection of an "independent monitoring agency" similar to the defunct National News Council (see "Going Public," April) but with stronger media support. He suggests a new set of awards, sort of like Pulitzers, aimed at recognizing "ethical awareness, self-
criticism, ombudsmen, accountability, and moral courage." And, though he's vague on his own position, he seems to promote the prospects of government spending to enhance access and diversity in the media and of possibly taxing advertising to subsidize media devoted to public affairs.

ýy favorite single suggestion is that the media begin "quarterly results" reports in which they look back at key stories over the past three months, correct any errors or misimpressions, and consider the "consequences of media attention — exoneration, prosecution, reform, progress, outrage."

While this is an admirable book overall, it does have some gaps of logic, organizational problems and lapses in clarity. Flink sometimes abruptly changes train of thought or just seems to abandon promising lines of inquiry. And his attention to the potentially profound impact of online journalism is token.

In the end, though, this is a valuable and rewarding book. It is a sober, fair-minded, historically informed attempt to put serious issues into context. And it is alive with suggestions and ideas that advance beyond hand-wringing.