So I says to my friend Looie — Looie, I says, if you had to vote on freedom of the media, like it guarantees in the First Amendment, how would you vote? Looie drops a few ashes of his cigar on my shoe tops and pauses thoughtfully before he answers. That’s a tough one, he says, especially if you include the New York Times and Howard Eskin. Give me a week or two to think it over.
What my pal is obviously trying to tell me is that when it comes to what is loosely termed the "Fourth Estate," the media is held in the same disrepute as politicians and $2 hookers. And for that bunch, the word "freedom" sticks in the throats of a lot of Americans.
When folks complain about the media, my ears naturally perk up. I take into consideration the source of the complaint — for instance, if it’s Bobby Clarke, I send him a photo of Eric Lindros and a one-way bus ticket to Flim Flam or whatever place he came from in Canada that has more wild geese than people. But usually, I just listen.
Looie’s complaint is instructive. The media, he says, hides behind a cloak of objectivity or words to that effect, when actually they’re biased. Looie has hit the proverbial nail on the head in this running debate between the citizenry and the media, which sometimes pretends to represent them. And just because Bobby Clarke and Bob Torricelli would say the same thing doesn’t mean it’s entirely wrong. The chances are if the bartenders and taxi hacks you know have their prejudices, so do the members of the media. The media wasn’t born in either a state of grace or a state of objectivity any more than you were. They’re cut from the same cloth, that ragtag tapestry that makes up the human race.
The media likes to protest that it is different, especially when it comes under attack. You charge the media with being biased and they’ll automatically howl that you’re trying to infringe on their constitutional rights under the First Amendment. Like Looie says, it’s like when a doctor taps your knee with that little mallet and your leg jumps. It’s the same way with the media — it’s just reflexes. So am I agreeing with Looie that the media is sometimes unfair — yes. But just what is the alternative?
Looie, like most of the public, likes the members of media who agree with him and dislikes those that don’t. And like most of the public, he doesn’t understand the difference between a straight news report and an opinion piece. It’s like holding Tom Brokaw to the same standards as Bill O’Reilly or Phil Donahue.
Conservatives have hollered for years about "liberal bias." They correctly point out that most members of the media are more liberal in their views than the American public, which they seem to think reflects some dark conspiracy. What Looie doesn’t understand is that most conservatives graduate college and go to Wall Street to work rather than live off the wages of your average reporter.
Newspapers for years were owned by very conservative people and they weren’t applying a liberal litmus test before they hired a reporter. In recent years, prominent conservative columnists and talk-show hosts have swung the pendulum in the other direction. But that hasn’t stopped conservatives from complaining.
Public figures choose their careers. With the perks and fame comes public scrutiny from the media. That’s how it is. There are libel laws to take care of the egregious cases of harm caused by the tabloid atmosphere in which we now live. Are they perfect? No. It is very difficult to win a libel case. That’s intentionally so. The courts have traditionally ruled, in essence, that if you’re in public life, you better have thick skin.
How does all of this affect Looie, who doesn’t like whom he doesn’t like? That’s a problem. It used to be that the FCC frowned on the concentration of media outlets under the same ownership. During the Reagan years, the restrictions were loosened in the name of the free market. So now, even in a big city such as Philadelphia, much of the media is owned by the same folks. Looie and you have the power to change that by demanding change.
Until then, turn the page, change the dial and chill out. When you check out the media in countries like China, North Korea and Iraq, you’ll have new affection for the First Amendment. Even when some of the most irresponsible members of the media hide behind it.
Tom Cardella can be heard before and after the Eagles-Texans game Sunday on 94-FM WYSP.