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Dan and Chandra
Inside the First Amendment

By Ken Paulson
Executive director, First Amendment Center

Dan Rather says he's taking a stand for "decent, responsible journalism." Just when did that become a controversial concept?

Rather and the "CBS Evening News" have claimed the high road, ignoring the Chandra Levy disappearance for the first two months, saying they weren't convinced it was a legitimate story. While the program recently did run a story about FBI involvement in the case — an exclusive — the program's early and ongoing disdain for the story has brought criticism.

Some describe the "CBS Evening News" decision as sour grapes; the network was late to the story and couldn't catch up. Others see a liberal bias in the refusal to focus on a Democratic congressman in trouble. Still others see Rather as holier-than-thou, without a clue about a hot national story. Of course, the Chandra Levy disappearance is more than just another hot story; it is THE story.

Certainly, wars, international crises and disasters have long been the subject of around-the-clock news coverage. But there's a new kind of story in play now. Fueled by the boom in cable news talk shows during the '90s, stories with a little sex, a little scandal and a dose of mystery can dominate the airwaves like never before. Rarely have so many reported on so little.

Each of these stories has some common elements:

  • The story is the topic of 75% of all news talk shows day in and day out. Rumors and innuendo are always welcome. No news developments required.
  • There's so much saturation coverage of the story that all the details can be condensed to a single word or name. O.J. Jon-Benet. Monica. Elian. Chandra.
  • The story gets better if you apply a little imagination. The Chandra story is built largely on speculation and what-ifs. It's Richard Jewell after the bombing, Monica before the dress.

Make no mistake. The disappearance of Chandra Levy is a news story. Congressmen don't have their homes searched every day. But this is not the biggest story, and it certainly shouldn't be the only story.

The scope of coverage is premised on the possibility that Levy was abducted or killed and that California Rep. Gary Condit is a suspect. We may never know either to be true. Clearly, this is a story that to date has been built on fantasy rather than facts.

So what's the harm in letting this kind of story have the run of the airwaves? After all, it's television's job to give the people what they want, isn't it?

While there's no question that Chandra's disappearance has intrigued the public, saturation coverage may not actually be what Americans want. In fact, there appears to be a real backlash against the First Amendment, the 45 words that made all of this coverage possible.

In a study just released by the First Amendment Center, 46% of Americans said they believe the press has too much freedom to do what it wants. The survey — conducted on an annual basis — shows there have been two periods during the last five years during which a majority of Americans have said that the First Amendment right of a free press goes too far. Approximately 53% said there was too much press freedom during the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal; 51% felt the same during the height of the Elian Gonzalez coverage.

There's a real danger in this. Saturation coverage of stories may build an audience, but it also takes a toll. When the public sees news organizations as entertainment vehicles and sources of gossip, it's less likely to recognize the free press as a check on government abuse. It's tough to make the case for the press's watchdog role when a single congressman appears to be getting all the scrutiny.

Under the First Amendment, journalists have the right to publish or broadcast whatever they wish. Less frequently acknowledged is the corollary right to decide not to publish or broadcast a story.

It's a positive step when a national network news program declares what it stands for and is willing to explain its policy to the public. You can quarrel with Rather's editorial standards, but let's give him credit for having them.

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