David Crisp: First Amendment healthy, newspapers not so

Susan Balter-Reitz, an assistant professor at Montana State University Billings, set my mind at ease last week about the laws governing journalism. But she said nothing to make me feel better about the future of the profession.

Balter-Reitz was giving one of a series of talks on political cartooning developed by MSU Billings professors. She was speaking in the Community Lecture Series at the Billings Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

Crisp

David Crisp

I teach a journalism class at Rocky Mountain College, so I was interested in hearing her take on key legal cases that determine how much freedom Americans have to speak their minds. She covered a couple of important cases that I talk about in class: New York Times vs. Sullivan, which established that public figures can’t recover damages for newspaper errors unless they can show the paper acted with actual malice; and Hustler vs. Falwell, which established that public figures can’t recover damages just because their feelings are hurt.

Balter-Reitz was kinder than I am to Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine, which ran a parody alleging that evangelist Jerry Falwell had engaged in sex with his mother in an outhouse. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that nobody could seriously think that Hustler meant for its parody to depict actual facts, so the porn magazine was protected by the First Amendment right to express opinions, no matter how foul.

Flynt likes to present himself as a hero in defense of the First Amendment. He strikes me as a sub-human toad who endangers the First Amendment by printing stuff so nasty that even well-meaning jurors are tempted to flout the First Amendment just to punish him.

I asked Balter-Reitz what she thought of a recent Washington Post political cartoon that depicted presidential candidate Ted Cruz as an organ grinder and his young daughters as his obedient monkeys. The Post pulled the online cartoon after a barrage of criticism.

Good professor that she is, Balter-Reitz turned the question around and asked me what I thought. Here’s what I think: The cartoon crossed a line, and I would not have published it. But Sen. Cruz also crossed a line when he used his children not just as pretty props but to make a political point, then doubled down by using the cartoon to bolster fundraising efforts. He deserved what he got, but his kids did not.

I went away pleased that Balter-Reitz largely reinforced my understanding of U.S. media law, which is in healthy shape by human being standards. Short summary: The First Amendment protects speech you hate.

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I felt less comforted after the Q&A session, which shifted toward the state of journalism as a whole. Topics touched what are now widely known concerns: the dramatic decline of the newspaper industry—including jobs for political cartoonists—the failure of online news sites to provide a satisfying alternative, the general breakdown of civility and openness in the marketplace of ideas.

Balter-Reitz pointed out that while freedom of speech protects individuals, freedom of the press historically has served to give the public as a whole a voice. But as media companies spend less and less money to gather the news, and as the market for news becomes more and more fragmented, that voice gets lost.

“We’ve lost a sense of civility because we are unable to listen to people we disagree with,” Balter-Reitz said. She said she tells her students, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” In other words, readers who don’t pay for the news they consume are themselves being bought by advertisers.

My own efforts to learn the news online are constantly frustrated by increasingly desperate efforts of websites to grab readers’ eyeballs: pop-up ads, intrusive videos, scrolling ads that never seem to end, jazzed-up headlines, shrill opinions, a congeries of paid links and sponsorships. Newspapers have their deficiencies, but I’ve never had an ad suddenly pop up in the middle of a newspaper story I was reading.

And let’s not mince words: 2015 was a terrible year not just for newspapers but for the Outpost, in just about every way. At a personal level, we had a death in our own family, plus three deaths in the Outpost family: longtime columnist Roger Clawson, board secretary Mary Gottwals and delivery pro Leroy Moore, who had handled most of our out-of-town deliveries for the last dozen years. I have reached an age at which I expect to attend far more funerals than weddings, but it was still a tough year to take.

The paper itself struggled mightily. After a strong first quarter, ad sales basically crashed and burned beginning in May, and then just kept getting worse.

None of this is atypical. Nationally, newspaper revenues have fallen 65 percent over the last 10 years. Staffing cutbacks have become so commonplace that it’s hard to keep track (the Gazette announced new cutbacks last week). Even urban weeklies like ours have taken big hits in circulation, demographic reach and revenues.

So have we reached the end of journalism? Well, no. But that’s a story for next week.

David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He has been editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost since 1997. The Outpost is published every Thursday and is available for free all over Billings and in nearby communities.