Tags: rupert | murdoch

Freedom of the Press Not for Journalists

Monday, 05 May 2008 11:17 AM

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There’s some huffing in journalistic ranks over The Wall Street Journal ownership’s decision to have a different managing editor. It’s nobody’s business but Rupert Murdoch’s.

The first amendment to the Constitution — the one that guarantees freedom of the press — does not apply to practitioners of journalism. That portion of the Bill of Rights is the prerogative of whoever owns the printing press.

Press owners' employees often hold the mistaken belief it is they who are free to write whatever they please, subject only to restraints of libel laws. Sadly for them, just because they work in a newsroom doesn’t mean they are anything more than employees who work in a newsroom.

The constitutional right to publish whatever you choose — again, subject to laws of libel — belongs exclusively to whoever owns the press. In the case of The Wall Street Journal, that now happens to be a fellow named Rupert Murdoch.

The same Constitution that guarantees him the exclusive right to publish as he wishes also holds him solely accountable for how he exercises that right.

If you don’t like what a newspaper publishes about you, your beef, legally, is not with the reporter whose byline appears on the story or the editorial writer who opines about you. To assert your own constitutional rights, you may confront the newspaper owner in court. It’s been done, often with success.

The First Amendment exists not to provide special benefits to press owners or journalists they hire, but to provide free citizens with accountable information upon which to make informed decisions about their own governance.

The Founding Fathers knew what they were doing when they laid it out that way. They had a nose full of the way King George kept them from obtaining accountable information. He threw presses in the river or owners in prison. They got the message, and they designed the First Amendment accordingly.

Down the years, non-owners of presses whose words the owners saw fit to publish began kidding themselves, and their readers, into believing they enjoy a constitutional right to have anything they write published by owners of presses.

Nonsense. They are merely the minions of owners, writing and editing at the sufferance of owners or of the vicars of owners, known as publishers.

The illusion to the contrary is what lies beneath much of the insufferable arrogance that so many newspaper reporters and editorial writers flaunt in the faces of their readers these days. They aren’t the ones, however, against whom libel verdicts are returned and from whom monetary damages are exacted.

The current flap over The Wall Street Journal is sort of interesting. At the time that Murdoch was negotiating to buy the paper, there was some nervousness within the newsroom and among its then-owners that The Wall Street Journal’s well-earned and cherished journalistic integrity might be in jeopardy.

So, Murdoch suggested creating a small committee of independent outsiders to approve or disapprove the firing or hiring of the top three editors, including the managing editor. His suggestion was adopted. The sale went through.

Later, two Murdoch officials met with the holdover managing editor. The three agreed, for whatever reasons, wise or otherwise, that the new ownership should have a managing editor of its own choosing. And he resigned, as he should have.

Now, the five members of the committee of outsiders is a little miffed that they weren’t consulted in advance. There’s not a doggone thing they can do about it. The reality is that Murdoch has the constitutional, as well as the corporate, right to employ as his managing editor whomever he jolly-well pleases. It’s his paper.

An independent oversight committee was a silly notion to begin with. If Rupert Murdoch screws up The Wall Street Journal, the loss will be his. If he does a magnificent job of honest journalism, the credit and gain will be his. Readers and advertisers will be the ultimate judges. No nannies needed.

That’s the way it should be in a free market in a republic with a constitutional guarantee of a free press. Reporters and editors who can with good heart and clear conscience please the owner who pays their salaries should enjoy working there and be grateful for the opportunity. No whiners need apply.

John L. Perry, a prize-winning newspaper editor and writer who served on White House staffs of two presidents, is a regular columnist for Newsmax.com.

Read John Perry's columns here.

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