Media groups last week attacked a proposal by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, to hold hearings on the news- gathering practices of major TV news organizations, charging that that the lawmaker’s plan runs afoul of constitutional protections of free speech.
“For Congress to suggest that they have some oversight authority over the media makes a mockery of the Constitution,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Added Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, “That seems like a very clear violation of the principle of the First Amendment, which is that a free press is free of any governmental control.”
But in a speech before the Association for Maximum Service Television last week in Washington, Rep. Barton said the public and Congress have a “legitimate” interest in learning how news organizations check stories before they go on the air-a particular concern in the wake of CBS News’ recent admission that it couldn’t authenticate documents it used to criticize President Bush’s National Guard service during a Sept. 8 “60 Minutes” segment.
“If you’re going to proclaim it as news, you’re going to have to have safeguards,” Rep. Barton said.
In his remarks to the broadcasters, the congressman said he vetoed calls from his Republican colleagues to launch a congressional investigation in the immediate aftermath of CBS’s controversial blast at the president for fear of influencing the outcome of the Nov. 2 presidential election. But he said he still believed that CBS-and other major TV news organizations-warranted congressional scrutiny.
“Once the election is over, there are some real issues there,” he said.
Rep. Barton was particularly critical of CBS News anchor Dan Rather serving as both the on-air reporter and behind-the-scenes editor of the “60 Minutes” segment on the president’s military service, lampooning Mr. Rather for supposedly seeking his own permission to air a segment that he wanted to believe was true.
“There’s no safety valve there,” Rep. Barton said.
The congressman said that when he grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, it was generally assumed that what appeared on the evening news was true.
But now, he said, a just-the-facts ethic appears to have been replaced with “If it’s close enough, let’s go with it and see if it sticks.”
Said the congressman, “I personally don’t see the same standards of authentication in what goes on the air.”
In a question-and-answer session, the congressman declined to give details about the session or specify who would be asked to testify at the hearings.
“But it’s going to be fair and balanced,” the congressman said.
Rep. Barton said part of the problem with TV news today is that many of its practitioners didn’t first serve apprenticeships in “real journalism” as print reporters, as did many of their predecessors during television’s infancy.
How the media does its job is ultimately up to the media, Rep. Barton added. “But it’s a legitimate hearing … to see how you do it,” he said.
CBS declined comment. But RTNDA’s Ms. Cochran said, “It’s really disturbing to think that a congressional committee is going to probe into the editorial decision-making of news organizations.”
Patrick Maines, president of the Media Institute, an industry First Amendment watchdog, said political speech is the most highly protected form of speech under the constitution.
Rep. Barton’s proposed hearings, said Mr. Maines, would represent “the most intrusive and most unacceptable form of content control.”
Ms. Dalglish said it probably would behoove news organizations to do a better job of explaining how news gets on the air and into newspapers. But such a disclosure decision should be up to the news media, not a congressional oversight committee.
“The Constitution makes it absolutely clear that there’s freedom of press in this country,” Ms. Dalglish said.