In a culture marked by pressure to report breaking news every five minutes, the pursuit of truth is at risk, newspaper columnist John Brummett said Thursday at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.
Brummett, whose columns are syndicated by the Arkansas News Bureau of Stephens Media and appear in the Times Record, made the comment during a talk that was part of a Constitution Week program by the American Democracy Project. The presentation, "The Burden of Freedom," focused on the First Amendment-protected rights of free speech and free press. "Freedom is not all it's cracked up to be ... and it's not a human instinct," Brummett said. "We're not all that much for it, when you get right down to it."
Calling fear "the scourge of liberty," he said one of the greatest burdens of freedom is the struggle to get past our fear and have the courage to exercise our freedom.
As a case in point, he cited a Yale University Press official's decision to publish "The Cartoons That Shook the World" this fall without reproducing the cartoons being discussed. In the book, Brandeis University professor Jytte Klausen analyzes the politics surrounding the violent Muslim reaction when cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad were published in a Denmark newspaper in 2005.
"The point is, freedom of the press is wonderful, but it ain't easy," Brummett said.
Enduring all the "nonsense and racket" of free speech is another burden of freedom when our natural impulse is to say "Shut the you-know-what up," he said.
Our only hope is to try to "get smart" in the face of "cheap talk" — the constant barrage of reports touted as breaking news on TV networks, anonymous personal attacks on the Internet, deliberate misstatements of the truth in pursuit of political aims.
"We have the burden to rise above, to overcome" cheap talk with reason and detachment, he said.
It was in his discussion of this third burden that Brummett lamented the loss of context in modern-day network reporting.
He said that immediately after Sonia Sotomayor was nominated for Supreme Court justice, several national news agencies aired a video snippet of her saying a "wise Latina woman" might reach a better conclusion than a white male "who hasn't lived that life" — yet none of the agencies had unearthed the snippet themselves or put it in context. He said "some outfit" of young Republicans were ready to push a button and supply the clip to everyone as soon as Sotomayor's nomination was announced.
"I hate to start off talking about the good old days, but back in the good old days ... we would research her past rulings and report comprehensively on her record. ... If we came across that remark, we would concern ourselves with the context: What was said right before, what was said right after, what question was asked, what point she was trying to make," Brummett said.
If a reporter didn't present the remark with sufficient context, an editor would hold it until the reporter supplied it, all in the pursuit of truth.
"What is at risk in this new culture is the loss of that," he said.
Answering an audience member's question later, Brummett said the culture of 24-hour news has evolved in a way that doesn't support careful news gathering.
"There's no institutional memory to know that's what you ought to do," he said. "The virtue, the imperative is, 'Look at this video.'"
Brummett's talk was one of several activities waged in celebration of Constitution Week.
UAFS professor Alice Taylor-Colbert, who organized the program with American Democracy Project co-chair Mandy Keyes, said a program Monday called "Let Your Voices Be Heard" drew about 200 students in two hours to the podium to express their views about freedom of the press.
"Some said they were tired of hearing commentators who were so biased. Others said, 'Yes but you're responsible for figuring out what's right and forming your own opinion,'" Taylor-Colbert said.
The week's activities included daily voter registration drives as well, and tables where people could write down their thoughts and have them posted on a blog.