Is America Still a Beacon for Press Freedom?

The United States of America -- land of the free, home of the First
Amendment -- is supposed to be a beacon for the rest of the world. So
where do we stand in the latest global rankings of press freedom?


That's not a typo. It's a national disgrace.

The Press Freedom Index
released last week by Reporters Without Borders reflects both the
freedoms journalists enjoy as well as the "efforts made by the
authorities to respect and ensure respect for this freedom."

The annual rankings examine the way that financial pressures lead to
self-censorship in the press, government abuses of the press, as well
as murders, imprisonment and physical abuse of journalists.

While there are currently no jailed journalists in America,
Reporters Without Borders said there are many concerns about the U.S.
media. "Journalists are guardians of democracy whose rights must be
protected around the world, not least in the United States, to which
emerging democracies look for guidance, and where free speech is an
inalienable right explicitly protected by the Constitution," Reporters
Without Borders declared. "This situation is unacceptable for the country known for its First Amendment rights."

The Year in Review

The rights of journalists to freely operate came under attack just two months ago when nearly 100 journalists were arrested and detained
in St. Paul, Minn., while trying to report on the Republican National
Convention. But this is only one blatant example of America's eroding
press freedoms.

This year, we also discovered a covert and extensive Pentagon propaganda campaign
that used the press to sway Americans' support for the Iraq War and the
war on terrorism. Deploying what the Pentagon called "message force
multipliers" throughout TV, radio and print, the government tried to
pass off well-coached pundits as unbiased military analysts. It's hard
to know who came out worse in this scandal: the Pentagon pundits or the
media that blindly booked them again and again -- no questions asked.

The media's epic failure in the run-up to the war has been
well-documented -- and a few major outlets have even issued apologies
for their coverage. But we're just beginning to see the fallout from
years of relentless rah-rah coverage of Wall Street, even as the
writing was on the wall about an impending collapse. And we haven't
even mentioned the mostly atrocious election coverage or recited stump
speeches we call "presidential debates."

Worse yet, the same pundits who have been so colossally wrong time
and again keep yapping away. There are, of course, a few courageous and
diligent reporters who dare to question the conventional wisdom. But
you won't find them on TV every night.

Media Consolidation vs. Press Freedom

All of this is directly connected to runaway media consolidation. Our major news outlets are controlled by just a handful
of big corporations, which have the power to set the news agenda and
shift the focus from real issues to the kind of celebrity-ridden,
gaffe-obsessed, lipstick-on-a-terrorist chatter that now passes for
political discourse. And the mantra of "deregulation" has been as bad
for the media as it's been for our financial institutions.

And it's just a matter of time before the current financial meltdown
becomes the pretext for even more consolidation, layoffs, slashed
reporting budgets and "news you can use."

Yet somehow every time these companies come to Washington with their
hands out, no one asks them if there just might be a connection between
all the cutbacks -- trimming content, canning veteran journalists,
shuttering foreign bureaus, replacing real reporting with mindless
commentary -- and their lower ratings and shrinking audiences.

Reporters Without Borders, too, noted the harmful effects of media consolidation on press freedom, pointing out the Federal Communications Commission's decision
to gut media ownership limits, allowing one company to own both a major
daily newspaper and broadcast station in the same market. Reporters
Without Borders observed the negative impact this would have on news
diversity and the ability to "protect a free, independent and diverse
media pool."

Reporters Without Borders also singled out the uncertain future of
the Internet as another central concern, and called for concrete
policies that would protect press freedom online. The organization
lambasted phone and cable companies' efforts to dismantle the
long-standing principle of Net Neutrality, which stops companies from discriminating against online content.

"The practice of charging fees for different access speeds for
broadband Internet connection undermines the right of people to be
informed. Net neutrality is the core concept that has made the Internet
the open media forum it is, and it must be protected," the group said, calling on both candidates and the U.S. Congress to pass laws protecting the open Internet.

How to Get Better Media

To protect press freedom, we must make better media policies. For
too long, the decisions that shape everything we see, read and hear
have been made behind closed doors by corporate lobbyists and their
cronies. It's time for all Americans to have a seat at the table and a
voice in this debate. This is a fight that must be joined by everyday
citizens, civil libertarians and working journalists alike.

As we enter a new year and a new administration, America's
36th-place finish is a clarion call for us to take a hard look at how
we are meeting the information needs of our communities and upholding
the values of the Constitution.

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