Since the adoption of the U.S. Bill of Rights in 1791, government and the media have sparred over balancing press protections guaranteed by the First Amendment against public interests ranging from national security to obscenity to libel.
The latest turn in this freedom dance peculiar to democracy went public on Monday, when the Associated Press reported that the Justice Department had secretly obtained records of calls placed on more than 20 AP phone lines over two months in the spring of 2012. AP CEO Gary Pruitt described the action as a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into its news gathering operation.
The next day, Attorney General Eric Holder defended the seizure and the investigation that prompted the action, saying that a government leak behind a May 7, 2012, AP article that revealed a foiled Al Qaida underwear bomb plot had seriously compromised national security. He placed the security breach among “the top two or three most serious leaks that I’ve ever seen.” (Note that before distributing the report on the wire, AP editors had complied with a government request to delay publication until the national security danger had passed.)
So why should purveyors of public relations care?
Aside from enjoying the individual liberties and benefits bestowed on each of us and U.S. society by the First Amendment, any impairment of press freedoms and the credibility that accompanies those freedoms poses a potential threat to our work and the interests of our clients. If the press labors under a cloud of public doubt, the same shadow diminishes media content and sources, and the messages they deliver.
The good news for the press and public relations is that the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer shows a steady growth in trust in media since the onset of the global economic collapse in 2008. In part, the report credits powerful and effective coverage of government and industry actions that nearly brought down the world economy. Bottom line – the press wins trust by doing its job fairly and effectively in an unfettered arena.
And as the latest press freedom debate continues with vigor, we should all celebrate the First Amendment in action.
Dan Page is a senior vice president on Edelman’s National Health Media Team. Previously he was a reporter and editor at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and the Daily News of Los Angeles. He studied journalism at the University of Missouri.
Image by Jarapet.