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October 6, 2003

Constitutional Guarantees Carry Responsibilities, (part two)

Joe Volz

The other day on this website my fellow Tentacle columnist, Mike Kuster, resumed his assault on The Frederick News-Post which, he said, appears to have a policy of attacking “the character of private citizens in the news and the opinion pages.” Mr. Kuster repeated his promise to boycott the paper and do his reading and advertising in the “well-written and well-edited Gazette.” His latest concern about the News-Post is that the paper “chose to attack” Becky Brashear, of the Great Frederick Fair. Mr. Kuster says he has known Becky and her family for years and she would never have made a disparaging statement about a carnival family left behind when the Fair closed. She was quoted by a News-Post reporter as saying, “Who cares? It’s just carny kids. It happens all the time.” I don’t know Ms. Brashear or Mr. Kuster and, as Dan Rather likes to say, I have no dog in this hunt. But I have been a reporter for 40 years, mainly in Washington, where among other beats, I covered the Supreme Court and the Justice Department for the New York Daily News. I do think I have a good understanding of the First Amendment, guaranteeing Freedom of the Press.

Of course, the amendment, as I view it, does not protect those who invent quotes or malign someone just for the sheer joy of it. But newspapers do have the responsibility to report newsworthy events and if Ms. Brashear did say those things, that is news in my book. The key question, still unanswered in my mind, is: “What exactly did she say and in what context.” Ms. Brashear published a column in the paper denying that she ever said those things. The editorial next to the column insists she did. It says that both the reporter, who took notes, and the paper’s photographer heard her. So, it is a matter of whom do you believe? As a former editor, I would have fired any reporter who failed to report those quotes—if they were accurate. On the other hand, I would have dismissed any reporter who made up, or embellished, the quotes to make a “better” story. Will we ever get an undisputed version of what Ms. Brashear said? Unlikely, unless someone had a tape recorder. In fact, it might be a good idea for reporters and Ms. Brashear to carry along recorders in any future interviews. We do have testimonials from many of her friends, who were not there, insisting she never would have made such scurrilous remarks. It’s nice to have good friends, but their testimony cannot clear up the dispute because they were not eyewitnesses to the event. They choose to believe Ms. Brashear, not the reporter. After all, what are friends for, if not to take your word for it? But Mr. Kuster makes another accusation. He hints that the paper, perhaps even the top brass, was engaged in some kind of a “cheap” effort to smear Ms. Brashear. Why? Why would the reporter, new to the paper, and the photographer want to do that? Mr. Kuster doesn’t give us a reason for their actions. There is another side of the Freedom of Speech issue, which Mr. Kuster ignores. The purpose of the amendment, as I understand it, was to allow papers that presented unpopular views to continue publishing without fear that the government would force them out of business. Over the centuries, it appears that political leaders, people who hold positions sort of like Mr. Kuster's, who is a local Democratic leader, have been the most infuriated by the press I am certain that without the First Amendment, the government would have passed laws putting many of the papers out of business, just as political leaders in the rest of the world regularly do to this day. Mr. Kuster is not suggesting that the reporter and photographer or Editor Mike Powell be thrown into prison—or even forced to live in Montgomery County. But he is continuing his effort to punish the paper by starting a boycott. I can’t object to that position strongly enough. I view it as ill-thought out and, well, anti-democratic. Probably anti-Democratic, too, because such a move would end up hurting the Democratic Party in Frederick and Mr. Kuster more than it would the News-Post. I cannot believe the residents of Frederick would flock to force the News-Post into economic hardship, possibly weakening or eliminating the only daily newspaper in the city. What the city needs is more voices, not fewer. Would the demise of the News-Post really help Mr. Kuster’s desire to spread his Democratic doctrine? I doubt it. A boycott is economic blackmail. It is telling the editors that anyone who disagrees with Mr. Kuster’s idea of what good journalism is, will pay the price where it hurts most—at the cash box. Who knows? Today, it is the News-Post. Tomorrow it might very well be the Gazette. I will defend to the death your right to utter such intolerable views, Mr. Kuster. Well, almost. Let’s talk. My email address is:

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