Tensions in the Checks and Balances

by Coyote Jack on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons License Attribution 2.5I watched Part 1 of Frontline’s News War on PBS a few weeks ago, and I left the show with many new questions. What are the constitutional freedoms and constraints of the government and the press? What values (or wastes) is our current media structure producing? Who are the customers of the media and the government? I would like to share a few highlights of the show with you that opened up these questions in me.

  • The Changing Role of Confidentiality: Tom Rosentiel claimed that before and during Watergate, confidentiality was a tool offered to reluctant sources in order to have them speak. Now, this has changed; often the source imposes confidentiality on the reporter. He uses the example of Deep Throat to show that a case of a reporter urging his source to speak was very different than a high-level politician speaking to a journalist and spinning the journalist under the guise of confidentiality.
  • Confidentiality as an Integral Part of a Journalist’s Role: Leonard Downie Jr. talked about the precept in journalism that a journalist should protect his/her sources at all times. This ethic protects the journalist tradition: if a journalist breaks her promise of confidentiality, that journalist can no longer be trusted by her sources and thus can no longer perform her job.
  • The Branzburg v. Hayes Case and the Rights of a Journalist: Branzburg v. Hayes (in my limited understanding) was a case brought before the Supreme Court asking the question if journalists are protected by the constitution not to testify in criminal cases against their confidential source. The Supreme Court decided they were not . About it, Earl Caldwell said that the First Amendment protects the process of free speech along with free speech itself. James Goodale claimed that the press cannot be the arm of law enforcement because then this group, responsible to showing citizens what is happening in their world, including in the elite sectors of government, business, entertainment, etc., is not able to uncover and show problems as well. Another opinion was given by William Bradford Reynolds, the prosecutor on the case, who said that he understood the principle that journalists held, but that is was also the duty of a citizen to tell the authorities when they know of criminal action happening.
  • Confidentiality as a Structure to Support Important Relationships in Society: Another articulation I found very valuable from this conversation was that certain confidential relationships are protected legally from having to testify against their counterpart: husband & wives, lawyer & client… Confidentiality in these relationships are protected as a way (declared by whom?) to build important societal relationships. Another question I have here is why are journalists not protected under the constitution the same way as lawyers/clients? What is the (legal and other) understanding of journalism in our society? Who declared it as such and what problems/advantages did this bring and is bringing now?

The tension that I see (from this documentary and in our present society) exists between journalists protecting their sources as a way to reveal the major secretive breakdowns in domains of our society and the protection of the citizens against criminal and terrorists acts. When does one practice reach a point where it can be declared that it is harming the values of the country and where is it acceptable?

And as I finish writing all of this, an articulation is coming to me in a visual image. Our country is not an innately “free and democratic” entity but instead is a ever-changing mesh where if you pull on it in one direction, tension increases and other domains shrink. This could happen when one aspect of society increases power, and another loses freedom. This balance seems to me to be very delicate, and as citizens, we should be diligently responsible to watch these tensions and act when they are no longer producing the shape of the country we want to live under.


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