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Jewish World Review Dec. 6, 2000 / 10 Kislev, 5761

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports


In the midst of all the noise, the truth will be heard


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE FOUNDING FATHERS knew what they were doing.

Constitutional experts can debate the varying aspects of the separation of powers, and how that separation has made itself felt in the days since Nov. 7. The roles of the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch -- as the United States, in the dwindling days of the year 2000, tries to determine a president -- will be argued for centuries into the future.

But the prescience of the founding fathers seems most impressive these days in light of another idea they came up with:

The 1st Amendment.

When the founders decided to make freedom of speech and of the press a national birthright, they could not have foreseen what would happen in the weeks after Election Day 2000. Yet what they did in guaranteeing a free press may -- in the context of what we all are currently going through -- be the most important decision they made.

Now . . . you may be on the verge of throwing your newspaper to the floor as you read these words. You may be disgusted by the news coverage during the last four weeks -- aghast at what you consider to be the excesses of the news media. You may want to yell at the very suggestion that the 1st Amendment is being shown in its most noble light these days.

So, before we go any further, let's agree:

Much of the coverage of the presidential mess has been pretty awful.

Between the screaming careerists on cable panel shows . . . the breathless impulse to put even the most minor Florida court hearings on live national TV . . . the following of the ballot-toting rental trucks up the highway by helicopters transmitting live TV pictures . . . the proclamation by some commentators of their prejudices as the only truth . . . the flat-out wrong declaration of one winner, then another, on Election Night itself . . . the insistence on turning every news development into an on-air promo by competing cable networks . . . the juvenile labeling of their reporters as "all-star teams" by some news organizations . . . the galling indifference to being accurate by news outlets that seem quite at ease reporting a development, then deciding it isn't true, and recrafting it as if being correct is just one of many options available, and not necessarily the most vital option. ... . .

With all of that, the public has every right to complain that the news media have often been sloppy, hasty, driven by self-interest, lacking in perspective, myopic, superficial and glib.

So why praise the 1st Amendment? Why say the founding fathers were so brilliant?

Because there is one thing that would be even worse than a presidential crisis that has been covered the way this one has:

A presidential crisis that is not covered freely -- that is covered in a manner dictated by the government, or by the political parties.

In an election so close that the person who will ascend to the White House is decided by a few hundred votes, think what would happen in a nation in which the government controlled the flow of information. Think what would happen if the words of the Democratic and Republican political operatives were the only versions of events you were allowed to hear.

We will finally get to the bottom of all of this precisely because so many different voices -- some insightful, many ignorant, all permitted to be heard -- are talking and writing about the election. There is no one, unquestioned, official version -- that is the beauty of the 1st Amendment. The founding fathers knew that an official version of the truth was not the key to a democracy -- they knew that allowing every voice to be heard was the closest thing to a guarantee that the truth will eventually be found. What could be worse than the silliness of following those ballot trucks with helicopter cameras? Not being allowed to look at the trucks, and the routes they take.

The founding fathers could not have foreseen cable television, and the Internet, and a country so wired that a person speaking in Florida or Texas can instantly be seen and heard thousands of miles away. But they instinctively knew that, in guaranteeing 1st Amendment rights to generations that would be born long after they themselves were dead, they were giving their descendants a gift more precious than diamonds.

Has the cacophony of voices covering and commenting on the fight for the presidency sometimes been grating?

Yes.

Yet think how terrible -- how infinitely worse -- would be the sound of silence.



JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

Up

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