War on journalists

Body-slamming the First Amendment

Stuart Zanville
2017 July

On the night before Montana’s special election to elect its only congressman, the Republican candidate confronted a reporter who was asking unwanted questions – and body-slammed him to the floor.

Win in Montana

The incident received a lot of media coverage in Montana and nationally, nearly all of it critical of the politician. The next day, however, voters in Montana reacted by giving the Republican a 6-point victory. Go figure.

That’s scary, and it says a lot about the violent, anti-media rhetoric that has been advanced by a wide-range of politicians lately, starting with the President of the United States. For some, like those voters in Montana, the media is the opposition party.

The opposition party

Beginning early in his presidential campaign, Donald Trump branded the media as “dishonest, pathetic, failing, crooked and the enemy of the American people.” He singled out reporters by name during the campaign, leading to public abuse and threats of physical harm or worse. Other politicians followed suit and both the President and politicians like the Republican in Montana haven’t pulled back.

Ironically, those are the same politicians who call for strict interpretation of the Constitution. Trial lawyers know those politicians forget that the 7th Amendment guarantees the right to a civil trial. They also forget that the Founding Fathers felt so strongly about maintaining a free press that the 1st Amendment famously states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Fake news?

The Founding Fathers – George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison – strongly supported freedom of the press even though they were each severely criticized by the media at the time. Thomas Jefferson wrote “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed.”

John Adams, our second President, was viciously attacked by pamphleteers and newspaper reporters, yet he still said, “But none of the means of information are more sacred, or have been cherished with more tenderness and care by the settlers of America, than the press.”

In a time when the rule of law doesn’t seem to matter to some politicians, attacks on the media have grown more and more pervasive. If a reporter states a fact that goes against the President, the story is quickly called “fake news.”

In an editorial in April entitled “Trump’s War on Journalism,” the Los Angeles Times wrote that “Most presidents, irritated as they may have been, have continued to acknowledge – at least publicly – that an independent press plays an essential role in American democracy. They’ve recognized that while no news organization is perfect, honest reporting holds leaders and institutions accountable; that’s why a free press was singled out for protection in the 1st Amendment and why outspoken, unfettered journalism is considered a hallmark of a free country.”

The Times added that “President Trump has escalated the traditionally adversarial relationship (between politicians and the media) in demagogic and potentially dangerous ways.” And that was months before the reporter in Montana found himself on the floor after asking an unwanted question.

Trial lawyers have long felt the heat of attacks from some politicians and their supporters and I believe there are similarities in the attacks on the media and the attacks on trial lawyers. Both are slandered as enemies of the people for holding wrong-doers accountable and stating unflattering facts. Both are branded as self-serving and even as liars in hopes of silencing the reporter or trial lawyer who challenges their version of reality. Both have been the object of a relentless campaign to undermine and delegitimize them in the eyes of the public.

Trial lawyers have a long history of involvement with the media and mostly it’s a mutual admiration society. The media wants to report stories that capture the public’s attention and trial lawyers want to tell their stories and the stories of their consumer clients. Nothing gets more media attention than a big trial, criminal or civil. While some media buy into corporate and political attacks on consumers and trial lawyers, legitimate media outlets still look for good stories to report. Trial lawyers are more than happy to supply them with those stories.

For the most part trial lawyers understand and respect the media, although I am sure there are times when some want to body-slam a reporter or two.

But trial lawyers are disciplined and understand the rule of law. When they become lawyers, they swear to support the Constitution, apparently unlike some of our elected leaders. Like attacks on the civil trial bar, attacks on the media aren’t frivolous and must be taken seriously. They are attacks on democracy and should be treated as such.

Stuart Zanville Stuart Zanville

Stuart Zanville is the Executive Director of the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles (CAALA). Contact him at (213) 487-1212 or by e-mail: stuart@caala.org.

Copyright © 2019 by the author.
For reprint permission, contact the publisher: Advocate Magazine