Column: The price of fake news: Is this a true threat to 1st Amendment rights?

By Jerry Bellune
By Jerry Bellune, Chairman & Editor Emeritus, Lexington County Chronicle & The Dispatch News

Fake news and politically-motivated reporting are testing all newspapers’ 1st Amendment guarantees.

The culprits include The New York Times and Washington Post, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, ABC, CBS and NBC.

Community newspapers such as ours seem to be in less danger. 

Believe it or not, we don’t intentionally publish fake news unless it’s in our dog Scoop’s weekly joke column.

Critics ask what should be done about those who slant news, suppress news that does not fit their agenda or invent articles to mislead voters?

Washington attorneys  David Rivkin and Lee Casey see serious slips in the gap between journalism and partisan politics.

Major newspapers, TV networks and other so-called mainstream media look for ways to oppose anything President Trump or Congressional Republicans say or do.

Even the once-reliable New York Times admitted in 2016 that “balance has been on vacation” since Trump decided to run.

“3 years later, the holiday continues,” the former Reagan-Bush lawyers say.

In a leaked transcript of a staff meeting, Times editor Dean Baquet said, “We built our newsroom to cover one story” that President  Trump “colluded with Russia and obstruction of justice to being a more head-on story about the president’s character.”

Since the Mueller investigation, the new story, he said, “requires deep investigation into people who peddle hatred.”

This makes the Times sound like political advocates working against Trump’s re-election, the lawyers say. The editor seemed unaware that advocates come under campaign-finance laws.

Those laws exempt the media, provided they are not owned by a political party, committee or candidate. This favored treatment is justified by the media’s “unique” 1st Amendment role in our society.

What if the media turns partisan?

“With the advent of the Internet and the decline of print and broadcast media,” the Supreme Court observed in 2010, “the line between the media and others who wish to comment on political and social issues becomes far more blurred.”

Media exemption from campaign-finance law is open to constitutional challenge, attorneys Rivkin and Casey say.

“We have consistently rejected the proposition that the institutional press has any constitutional privilege beyond that of other speakers,” the court said.

The court may resolve the problem by declaring the media exemption unconstitutional. This would make us subject to campaign-finance laws.

Lawyer and author James Hasson notes that in emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee in 2016, major journalists were unmasked as coordinating with Hillary Clinton’s  campaign.”

A Times writer told Clinton aide Jennifer Palmieri she could ‘veto whatever [she] didn’t want,’ ” then “cut parts she objected to.”

A Politico reporter sent the DNC an entire story before publication.

This kind of behavior destroys public trust in all of us as public watchdogs.

If nothing else, they should be legally shamed for what they are doing.

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