Newspaper column: Book offers historic perspective on the press

The premise of conservative commentator Mark Levin’s new book, “Unfreedom of the Press,” is that modern journalism has devolved into an opinionated, group-think pack of politically partisan propagandists who oppose President Trump at every turn and think he is a danger to freedom of the press.

While we don’t think that conclusion is totally valid, the book does offer a worthy historic perspective on the behaviors of the press and our presidents.

Levin notes that for more than a century the American press was unabashedly partisan, often surviving on printing contracts from the party in power when the newspapers were able to put them there. He seems to accept the notion that sometime early in the 19th Century journalists altruistically embraced the concept of objectivity.

Actually the conversion was mostly profit-motivated. It was borne of the penny press.

The newspaper business model changed from being dependent on government printing contracts and political party handouts to one of being supported by advertisers, whose customers paid the same for a pair of shoes no matter which party they embraced. So why alienate half of your potential customers with partisanship? The newspaper that delivered the highest readership fetched the highest advertising dollar.

Levin’s book does point out correctly that Trump’s often repeated and tweeted animus for the press is benign compared to past presidents.

With the ink still damp on the First Amendment President John Adams pushed through the Federal Congress a series of Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. These acts made it a crime to “write, print, utter or publish … any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute …” The penalty was a fine or imprisonment for up to two years.

Under those laws more than 20 Republican newspaper editors were arrested and some were imprisoned. Among those was newspaperman James Callender who called Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” These details are not in the book, by the way.

Levin notes Abraham Lincoln enforced censorship during the Civil War and jailed several reporters, editors and publishers.

Newspaper column: Free speech is not violence

The leftists have yet to learn that the proper response to speech they don’t like is to counter with more speech, reasoned speech. No, their first and constant response is: Shut up!

This is what happened after President Trump criticized a maladroit comment made by Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat and Muslim, in a speech before the Council on American-Islamic Relations. She said, “CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”

Trump tweeted a video splicing together Omar’s tone-deaf “some people did something” with footage of the World Trade Towers collapsing. It was captioned, “WE WILL NEVER FORGET.”

A number of Democrats immediately demanded that the video be taken down because it might incite violence against Omar, and Omar herself said she had been subjected to numerous death threats. Never mind that CAIR has been accused of supporting terrorist organizations such as Hamas or that it actually was founded in 1994.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted, “It is wrong for the President, as Commander-in-Chief, to fan the flames to make anyone less safe.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren wrote on Twitter, “The President is inciting violence against a sitting Congresswoman — and an entire group of Americans based on their religion. It’s disgusting. It’s shameful. And any elected leader who refuses to condemn it shares responsibility for it.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, another Democratic presidential candidate, joined in by tweeting, “Ilhan Omar is a leader with strength and courage. She won’t back down to Trump’s racism and hate, and neither will we. The disgusting and dangerous attacks against her must end.”

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, another Democratic presidential contender, criticized Trump during a speech, saying, “This is an incitement of violence against Congresswoman Omar — against our fellow Americans who happened to be Muslim.”

The always outspoken and equally maladroit New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the video an “outright, dangerous targeting of a member of Congress.”

Fellow Democrat and Muslim Rep. Rashida Tlaib tweeted that Trump took “Ilhan’s words out of context to incite violence toward her …”

Inciting violence?

We don’t seem to recall Sanders being chastised thusly after a supporter of his candidacy shot up a Republican baseball practice, seriously wounding Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Nor do we recall anguish over the many political and media attacks against Trump, despite the number of threats the Secret Service fields.

As for the legal definition of inciting violence, the Supreme Court nailed that in the 1969 case of Brandenburg v. Ohio when it struck down an Ohio law making it illegal to advocate violence. The court held, “Freedoms of speech and press do not permit a State to forbid advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

Of course some Democrats are hand wringing over the possibility that some crazy person might be incentivized to act out violently due to Trump’s remarks, which clearly did not advocate violence of any kind.. If the crazy person standard is all it takes to silence criticism, then no speech is safe.

As for condoning violence, it was Rep. Omar who wrote a letter to a judge in 2016 asking for leniency for nine men charged with planning to join ISIS.

“A long-term prison sentence for one who chose violence to combat direct marginalization is a statement that our justice system misunderstands the guilty. A restorative approach to justice assesses the lure of criminality and addresses it,” Omar wrote.

“The desire to commit violence is not inherent to people — it is the consequences of systematic alienation; people seek violent solutions when the process established for enacting change is inaccessible to them.”

The answer to solving social and political issues is open and free discussion resulting in actions to combat wrongs, not violence. Using the specter of violence to gag free speech is fundamentally against everything this country was founded on and stands for.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Newspaper column: Nevada press shield law protects bloggers

Unlike too many jobs in this country there is no such thing as a licensed journalist, but a Carson City judge has found such in the penumbra of Nevada’s press shield law.

Normally those in the press don’t seek any privilege not accorded any other citizen, but by the very nature of the job — showing up at fires and car crashes, attending public meetings, poking into nooks and crannies of government and society, asking questions and quoting people — there needed to be a means to keep the press independent and not be dragged into court hearings or depositions every other week.

That’s the purpose behind the state press shield law. It prohibits giving the third-degree to the Fourth Estate. Otherwise, there would be considerable disincentive for people to talk to reporters, because reporters could be forced to testify about them or reveal their identities.

Sam Toll

The law says, “No reporter, former reporter or editorial employee of any newspaper, periodical or press association or employee of any radio or television station may be required to disclose any published or unpublished information obtained or prepared by such person in such person’s professional capacity in gathering, receiving or processing information for communication to the public, or the source of any information procured or obtained by such person, in any legal proceeding …”

The devil apparently is in the details.

Earlier this month District Court Judge James Wilson Jr. ordered Sam Toll, creator of The Storey Teller blog, to disclose his sources for a story about Storey County Commissioner and brothel owner Lance Gilman, who is suing Toll for defamation. Toll reported that sources told him the commissioner does not actually live in his district.

Toll wrote in a recent op-ed for the Las Vegas newspaper, “Gilman, one of the wealthiest men in Northern Nevada, insists he lives in a double-wide trailer behind the swimming pool at the Mustang Ranch brothel rather than the home he owns in Washoe Valley. Evidence and interviews I conducted suggest otherwise. In order to be a Storey County commissioner, you must reside in the district you represent.”

The judge concluded Toll is a reporter, but he failed to “provide facts, legal authority, or argument that the Storey Teller is a periodical …” Hair splitting. The law says periodical, which is a journal appearing periodically.

Instead of a press, a blogger uses a computer. It can be argued that Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack” was America’s first blog — self-written, self-printed, self-promoted. Print on paper or print in the ether. It is a distinction without a difference.

The First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press was extended to radio and television without hesitation.

The judge further concluded Toll is not a reporter for a newspaper and did not join the Nevada Press Association until August 2017 and thus must reveal sources obtained prior to then.

Toll is not a reporter of or for the Press Association. He is a member. It is not a licensing body.

The state Supreme Court has recognized the shield law’s important function for the citizenry.

Justice Myron Leavitt opined in a case in 2000 in which a plaintiff tried to force a Las Vegas newspaper reporter to reveal his sources: “Nevada’s news shield statute serves an important public interest and provides absolute protection against compelled disclosure to ensure that through the press, the public is able to make informed political, social and economic decisions.”

Clark County judges have twice interpreted the shield law differently. In 2014 two judges ruled that the Mesquite Citizen Journal and its reporter, “although an online only news media source,” were protected by the shield law from being forced to reveal communications and records related to a series of stories about the local water district. In 2016 a judge denied demands to review a film maker’s unpublished notes and video interviews with a witness in a criminal case, ruling the press privilege also extended to the film maker.

Despite those rulings, Judge Wilson granted Gilman’s motion to compel Toll to reveal sources of information prior to August 2017 and gave the parties until April 12 for discovery to be completed.

For his part, Toll has said he is willing to be jailed before he will reveal sources. “Integrity is the most precious currency we have as journalists. Without it, the public would not entrust us with the information we need to help protect society from wrongdoers,” Toll wrote.

Let’s hope this current case is appealed and results in a similar outcome to that of the Mesquite Citizen Journal and the film maker.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Editorial: Local government unions create huge pay gap

It is good to be a public servant in Nevada, downright lucrative in fact.

The folks at the Nevada Policy Research Institute have crunched the Census data for 2017 and found the median earnings for local government workers in Nevada were 46 percent higher than for those in the private sector — $58,644 for local government workers per year, compared to $40,259 in the private sector. That 46 percent gap is the highest of any state in the nation.

Hawaii and California had the second and third highest gaps.

Nevada local government workers had the fifth highest wages in the country, while private-sector workers came in at a distant 47th.

NPRI is quick to point out that much of the pay disparity is due to differences in experience, education and other factors, but that does not negate the fact the Nevada gap is the highest in the nation. Also, NPRI notes that when Nevada’s local government workers health and retirement benefits and more generous paid leave are factored in the gap with the private sector widens to 57 percent.

For example, both state and local public workers contribute to the Nevada Public Employees’ Retirement System. Currently 28 percent of a worker’s salary is contributed to cover the cost of pensions — half from the taxpayers and half from the employee. The figure for police and fire employees is 40 percent to account for often shorter working careers. But many local government unions have collectively bargained to have the taxpayers pick up all of the PERS contributions, effectively adding a hidden cost not seen in salaries alone.

“On a statewide basis, government pay and benefits cost taxpayers roughly $10 billion last year — which was equal to 80 percent of all tax revenue collected by every state and local government agency in Nevada,” notes NPRI policy director Robert Fellner. “Thus, in the event Nevada’s government pay gap continues its upward growth, the resulting tax hikes necessary to sustain such excess may become too great to bear.”

Fellner argues, “Because such outsized pay packages come at the expense of taxpayers who earn much less themselves, elected officials should consider the fairness and sustainability of continually caving in to government unions’ endless demands for even more.”

Unlike state government employees, local government workers in Nevada are largely covered by union contracts. State government workers generally are paid more than those in the private sector, but less than local government employees.

In past legislative sessions, lawmakers have attempted to allow state government workers to unionize, though they should instead take away the right of local government workers to unionize. The unions hold too strong a sway over local elected officials who must bargain with the unions over wages.

None other than the icon of progressivism, Franklin D. Roosevelt, said in a 1937 letter:  “All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management.”

He went on to add, “The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people …”

Who is the servant and who is the boss?

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Editorial: Groups should not be forced to reveal donors

The uberliberal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes Nevada, recently struck another blow against free speech, saying the state of California may force non-profits to reveal their donors.

According to The Wall Street Journal, in 2016 a federal judge ruled that the Americans for Prosperity Foundation did not have to give its donor list to the California attorney general’s office. 

Judge Manuel Real agreed with the foundation’s lawyers that the state had no legitimate law-enforcement interest in obtaining the names. He also said that the attorney general’s failure to keep donor names confidential subjected donors to a risk of harassment and retaliation.

The 9th Circuit panel shrugged this off and found the attorney general had a “strong interest” in obtaining donor names in order to investigate potential fraud.

This is significant for Nevada because there is a law on the books here that says any group that engages in “express advocacy” in elections must register with the Secretary of State and report donors and expenditures. 

In 2013 a Carson City judge fined a Virginia-based group called Alliance for America’s Future (AAF) more than $100,000 for airing television commercials praising Brian Sandoval’s conservatism during the gubernatorial campaign of 2010. Though the group argued the law was unconstitutional under the First Amendment, the judge found in the penumbra of the Constitution a whole new right.

He wrote, “No amount of civil penalties can redress the injury to Nevada voters caused by refusal to timely provide them with the information to which they are entitled, thus there is no adequate remedy at law.” 

He ruled the voters are entitled to the names of donors who sponsored the message, which would have been a surprise to James Madison, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Paine, all of whom wrote anonymously. 

In 2014 AAF reached a settlement with Secretary of State Ross Miller before the case reached the state Supreme Court. The group paid a $40,000 fine, registered as a political action committee and filed contribution and expenditure reports. 

Even though the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC let stand the requirement under McCain-Feingold that donors be revealed, Justice Clarence Thomas made a compelling argument that it is clearly an abridgment of free speech  rights to force people to surrender their right to anonymously express their views about elections, candidates and issues with donations to like-minded groups.

Thomas’ dissent concluded that such laws had spawned a cottage industry that uses forcibly disclosed donor information to intimidate, retaliate, threaten and boycott individuals and businesses with whom they disagree. 

Thomas wrote, “The disclosure, disclaimer, and reporting requirements in (the law) are also unconstitutional. … Congress may not abridge the ‘right to anonymous speech’ based on the ‘simple interest in providing voters with additional relevant information …’”

In the recent California case one of the groups siding with the foundation was the NAACP. In 1958 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state of Alabama could not force the NAACP to reveal its donors, citing the potential for intimidation and violence against donors. 

But the 9th Circuit panel dismissed this concern. Though the panel admitted, “The Foundation’s evidence undeniably shows that some individuals publicly associated with the Foundation have been subjected to threats, harassment or economic reprisals,” it shrugged this off by concluding, “Such harassment, however, is not a foregone conclusion.” 

What if the threats had been to the judiciary?

Americans for Prosperity has said it will seek a rehearing before the full 9th Circuit, and appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if that fails. By all means appeal, and we urge the Nevada attorney general to file a friend of the court brief in support.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco (Getty Images via WSJ)

Newspaper column: Too many willing to forgo First Amendment rights

Here is proof positive that ignorance is hazardous to freedom.

The Freedom Forum’s 2018 First Amendment survey, conducted in May and June, asked 1,009 Americans to name the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. Only one person could name all five. One out of more than 1,000.

But perhaps the most telling aspect of the survey was when knowledge of the First Amendment was compared to a willingness to have the government censor social media online. Fully 63 percent of those who could name not a single First Amendment right agreed the government should censor speech, while 87 percent of those who could name four freedoms disagreed.

The more rights one could name, the more those people balked at government censorship. The curve of ignorance runs counter to the curve of freedom.

Knowledge is power and ignorance is hazardous.

Even more scary is the fact that ignorance is rampant. Fully 76 percent of those surveyed could name none or only one First Amendment right — meaning that if such a censorship scheme were put to a vote it just might win.

As for political party affiliation, 54 percent of Democrats agreed with government censorship compared with 47 percent of Republicans.

For the record, the First Amendment states: “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.”

We’ve been writing about this annual survey with considerable angst for two decades and things have gone downhill since. In 1997, the first year of the survey, 2 percent of those questioned could name all five rights.

Somewhat ironically, considering the considerable willingness to renege on it, the one First Amendment right a simple majority, 56 percent, could name was freedom of speech. Only 15 percent could recall freedom of religion. A mere 13 percent could think of freedom of the press, while right of assembly garnered only 12 percent and right of petition a paltry 2 percent. Fully 9 percent thought the Second Amendment right to bear arms was in the First.

Another disturbing finding in the survey is the willingness of Americans to silence someone merely because someone might be offended. When asked whether public universities should be able to retract invitations to controversial speakers if their remarks would offend some groups or even individuals, 42 percent agreed. If the appearance might provoke protests, 51 percent would withdraw the invitation. And if it might incite violence, 70 would cancel — the hooligan’s veto.

“It’s a little disquieting that 4 in 10 believe that public universities should be able to cancel a speaker if he or she might offend ‘individuals.’ In these polarized times, it’s difficult to conceive of anyone speaking on any topic without offending someone,” commented Ken Paulson, president of the Freedom Forum Institute’s First Amendment Center and dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University.

“That finding — along with majority support for cancelling speakers if a protest is likely — suggests there is significant public support for keeping controversial ideas off college campuses,” Paulson continues. “This begs the question: If a public institution dedicated to the sharing of knowledge and ideas is the wrong place for controversial thoughts, what is the appropriate venue?”

On a more positive note, 74 percent of survey respondents agreed that it is important that the news media act as a watchdog on the government, up from only 68 percent in 2017.

David L. Hudson, Jr. — author, co-author or co-editor of more than 40 books, including “First Amendment: Freedom of Speech” — noted that politicians have long extolled and excoriated the role of the press.

Though President Obama praised “a tough and vibrant media,” President Trump has called some members of the press “enemies of the people” and purveyors of “fake news.”

“The most encouraging part of the 2018 State of the First Amendment survey is the public’s embrace of the ideal of the media serving as the watchdog of a free society,” Hudson writes. “The American public recognizes the essential importance of a vibrant and free press to serve the interests of the public as a check against government.”

But for how long?

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Freedom is threatened by rampant and abject ignorance

Here is proof positive that ignorance is hazardous to freedom.

The Freedom Forum’s 2018 First Amendment survey in May and June asked 1,009 Americans to name the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment — only one person could name all five. One out of more than 1,000.

But perhaps the most telling aspect of the survey was when knowledge of the First Amendment was compared to a willingness to have the government censor social media online. Fully 63 percent of those who could name not a single freedom agreed the government should censor speech, while 87 percent of those who could name four freedoms disagreed. The curve of ignorance runs counter to the curve of freedom. Knowledge is power and ignorance is hazardous.

This chart shows the just how few are those who would protect our rights to free speech:

That is dangerously close to a majority willing to let government do what the First Amendment says it may not.

For the record, the First Amendment states:

“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.”

I been writing about this annual survey with considerable angst since at least 2000, though most of the links have long since disappeared into the ether.