Is First Amendment only for the press?

NEW YORK TIMES building in Manhattan (Sam Chill/Flickr).

The New York Times, an organization devoted to gathering and publishing information, doesn’t want people to gather or publish information inconvenient to it.

A group of Trump-supporting operatives has been finding and archiving old social media postings of Times employees and other journalists for use in the ongoing brawl between the president and the press.

There’s no indication that this is dumpster diving rather than an effort to scour readily available sources for stupid, embarrassing or offensive things that journalists have said publicly under their own power.

The Times broke the news of the campaign in an alarmed-sounding report. It related that “the material publicized so far, while in some cases stripped of context or presented in misleading ways, has proved authentic, and much of it has been professionally harmful to its targets.”

It’s not clear what makes this different from what happens in our public life … every … single … day. Headhunting based on past offenses, real and imagined, is the norm, indeed one of the left’s favored forms of ideological combat.

Nonetheless, the press and its progressive allies act as though the First Amendment is being endangered if journalists apologize for past things they’ve written or – depending on the decisions of their own organizations – get cashiered for them.

“The goal of this campaign is clearly to intimidate journalists from doing their job,” thundered Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger.

A spokesman for CNN went further, saying that when government officials, “and those working on their behalf, threaten and retaliate against reporters as a means of suppression, it’s a clear abandonment of democracy for something very dangerous.”

This is the usual hysteria yoked to the usual foggy thinking. The First Amendment is an important protection of press freedom. Yet nothing in it protects members of the press from criticism, let alone criticism over things they have written. Such criticisms are exercises of free speech in response to other exercises of free speech — i.e., public debate.

If the Times and others don’t like the weaponization of foolhardy and untoward social media postings, they can start pushing back against it across the board.

The left-wing organization Media Matters for America exists to publicize (allegedly) controversial statements by conservative media figures toward the end of getting them fired or ushered off the air. If recirculating the past tweets of employees of liberal news organizations is undemocratic, why isn’t the work of Media Matters also dangerously authoritarian?

The Times may say that it won’t be “intimidated” by pressure over past postings, but it has readily surrendered to such pressure from the left. The paper pulled the plug on its hiring of tech writer Quinn Norton last year when it emerged that she had tweeted offensive terms about gays and blacks, albeit sardonically.

The hounding of conservatives isn’t considered beyond the pale; it’s considered sport. Much of the left would be rendered practically mute if it weren’t braying for people to be fired.

I think it’s a bad idea for either side to rummage through old social media postings and writings looking for firing offenses. But the rules of this game were established by the left long ago. It should either change them – or stop whining.

Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review. (c) 2019 by King Features Synd., Inc.

Leave a Reply