Wednesday, November 20, 2013

JFK's "President And The Press" Speech...How Would It Play Now?

This Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of our 35th President, John F. Kennedy. There is plenty of coverage across many media platforms of late to mark the occasion. I'll leave it to my readers to seek out their preferred source for this content.

This morning, I gave attention to a speech President Kennedy gave on April 27th, 1961 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City to a meeting of the American Newspaper Publishers Association. The gist of the speech focuses on what President Kennedy felt the role of the press was in terms of covering his Administration. He had taken the oath of office on January 20th, 1961, so had served a fairly short time. To my knowledge, these remarks were his first extended comments directed toward the press.

Its an interesting speech Kennedy titled "President And The Press." Throughout the speech, care is taken to praise as highly important, valuable and necessary, the role of the press in our Country.

"Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed—and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian law-maker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment—the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution—not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply "give the public what it wants"—but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.

Kennedy continues:

"No President should fear public scrutiny of his program. For from that scrutiny comes understanding; and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary. I am not asking your newspapers to support the Administration, but I am asking your help in the tremendous task of informing and alerting the American people. For I have complete confidence in the response and dedication of our citizens whenever they are fully informed."

It is quite obviously a dramatically different time that the press operates in today. Exponential growth of its industry as a result of the internet, which has resulted in an explosion of "information" websites, blogs and bloggers, as well as the expansion of our television viewing options brings us to a place never before visited by the American people. Intuitively, most agree that more and better access to information is both important and desirable. Are there limits? Can the press be compared to an automobile? Speed is good but isn't there a degree where too much acceleration poses more of a threat than a benefit? Of course. Society has decided that for the vast majority of our roads and highways there will be a limit to be observed and penalties applied if a motorist elects not to.

Similarly, today's "news" media doesn't deliver "just news" (pun intended.) An intoxicating blur between information and entertainment aka "infotainment" I say has done far more harm than good. Too many viewers see no distinction between the two forms and are worse off for it. To confuse Glen Beck with Chris Wallace, to confuse Ed Schultz with Andrea Mitchell, to confuse Sean Hannity with Ed Henry, etc. has its price. While television, radio, the web are mostly revenue seeking and revenue driven enterprises, the audiences tuning in/clicking on their favorites too often seem not to be aware of the difference or perhaps not to care. Either way, its a sad state we find ourselves in. 

Kennedy asks his audience the basic question of is additional restraint to be expected from our media when it comes to matters of national security? He does not answer his question, rather leaving it to his listeners to consider it and do as their conscience guides them. A conscience that Kennedy seems to have a confidence in producing the right decision. (Boldface mine.)

"That question is for you alone to answer. No public official should answer it for you. No governmental plan should impose its restraints against your will. But I would be failing in my duty to the Nation, in considering all of the responsibilities that we now bear and all of the means at hand to meet those responsibilities, if I did not commend this problem to your attention, and urge its thoughtful consideration.

On many earlier occasions, I have said—and your newspapers have constantly said—that these are times that appeal to every citizen's sense of sacrifice and self-discipline. They call out to every citizen to weigh his rights and comforts against his obligations to the common good. I cannot now believe that those citizens who serve in the newspaper business consider themselves exempt from that appeal.

I have no intention of establishing a new Office of War Information to govern the flow of news. I am not suggesting any new forms of censorship or new types of security classifications. I have no easy answer to the dilemma that I have posed, and would not seek to impose it if I had one. But I am asking the members of the newspaper profession and the industry in this country to reexamine their own responsibilities, to consider the degree and the nature of the present danger, and to heed the duty of self-restraint which that danger imposes upon us all."

I wonder aloud today, how such a speech would be received today? I suspect not very well. A percentage of media outlets would find it to be quite acceptable, while others would find it offensive and set out with its consumers a mission of objecting to a President of the United States attempting to, albeit with clever words, censor the Fourth Estate. 

I am reminded of a famous quote by one of our earliest journalistic heroes, Edward R. Murrow. Allowing myself some light editing, I suggest his words address my primary concern rather well: (Boldface mine.)

We will should not walk in fear, one of another. We will should not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin the media have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it—and rather successfully. Cassius was right. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves." 

(H/T to Tim Farley/POTUS Sirius/XM Channel 124)


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