Friday, July 23, 2010

"According to Court Records…"

"From this it is clear how much more cruel the pen may be than the sword."
~Robert Burton, 1621

We live in the information age…actually, we have been living in the information age for quite a while, and in many ways the availability of information is nothing short of miraculous. Researchers are able to compile data and compare studies that lead to effective treatments for disease, saving countless lives. Satellites circle the earth and warn the inhabitants of our fair planet of dangerous storms and weather systems, again preventing needless injury or loss of life. On a smaller, but possibly even more meaningful scale, parents remain in daily contact with their children who are away at school, husbands and wives retain bonds of closeness even when work or other duties place physical distance between them, and lifelong friends stay united by writing letters and emails, placing phone calls, and of course by sending the constantly-sought-after “perfect greeting card”. Our lives are made richer and vastly more satisfying through the simple ability to communicate information to each other.

But there is a dark side to communication as well. Just as there is the opportunity for information to benefit the masses, there is also the chance of information being misused or mishandled to someone’s very great harm. Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” The Greek playwright Euripedes obviously had similar thoughts clear back around 406 B.C. when he wrote, "The tongue is mightier than the blade." Neither of these two men would have been surprised at the slash and stab techniques used by most newspapers in our modern culture, because they both obviously understood the immense force wielded by the written word…whether or not those words be truthful. That’s the proverbial fly in the ointment of media reporting: the truth is no longer the point. The truth used to be the point, somewhere back in time when the hearts of men and women were purely noble and no one would have dared to dream of spreading malicious stories about someone else purely for personal or professional gain. Yes, back in such a time a newspaper would have been used to report…well, to report news. You know, important world events, stories of local heroes saving the day, celebrated births and mournful passings, helpful financial information, and of course the comics! But that was then, and this is now...and things have definitely changed.

“Reliable sources say…”, “Our information indicates…”, “Investigators have discovered…”, and “It seems apparent…” are all phrases commonly used in press reports to gloss over the fact that much of what they report are actually unfounded, unsupported, downright fabricated statements that should never be allowed in a public forum. Such statements often border on groundless rumor-mongering at best, and outright slander at worst. The winner of the “Hide Behind Semantics” prize would be this lead-in: “According to court records…”,which leads the reader to believe that since what they are about to read is part of an official court record, it can be assumed to be true. Unfortunately all this actually means is that the statement was made in a courtroom…it has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the accuracy of the statement itself. As a matter of fact, Prosecutors and law enforcement officers have immunity when speaking on the record in court, and cannot he held liable for statements they make which may not be true. Evidently the threat of a perjury charge for lying in court only applies to the defense and to civilian witnesses, not to the prosecution.

Now, one may wonder, “What’s the big deal?”. After all, whatever is written about an individual, even in a big-city newspaper or tabloid, is just something someone else wrote, so why should it make any difference? Shouldn’t we all just go on living our lives and “doing what we do” regardless of anyone else’s opinion? Wouldn’t it be best to just ignore whatever the media spews forth about us and just assume that everyone else in the world will also see it for the garbage that it is and not lend any credence to it? Perhaps we should rely on the childhood adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”? Unfortunately, the sad fact is that words can and do often cause irreperable damage to people’s lives. Ask someone whose personal life is laid bare for the world to see when they are charged with a crime, just how much damage inaccurate newspaper reporting can cause. (Not convicted of a crime, but simply charged…but that’s another article altogether.) Ask the family member of a political candidate who suddenly has no privacy whatsoever, even though they are not the individual running for office. Or ask the individual who brings a complaint against the judicial or law enforcement system and then becomes the target of a public “investigation” because they had the courage to address a failure within the legal system. The list is long of citizens whose personal and professional lives, reputations, families, and futures have been placed at risk or destroyed altogether by careless, factless statements published in public newspapers.

The Legal Information Institute states that, “despite popular misunderstanding the right to freedom of the press guaranteed by the first amendment is not very different from the right to freedom of speech. It allows an individual to express themselves through publication and dissemination. It is part of the constitutional protection of freedom of expression. It does not afford members of the media any special rights or privileges not afforded to citizens in general.” Interesting. One has to wonder how it is that the media is permitted to photograph defendants in a courtroom, publish unsubstantiated accusations against a defendant, and even disseminate private information purely for the purpose of “interest or entertainment”, without risk of charges of slander or invasion of privacy. Not to mention that a private citizen pulling out a camera to photograph anyone in a courtroom is subject to criminal charges themselves. Clearly there is a difference in the privilege of free speech enjoyed by the media as opposed to that of ordinary citizens.There is power wielded by the press that the average citizen simply does not possess…power to inform, to educate, and to destroy, depending on how that power is used.

Personally, I see immense value in newspapers, especially for those who keep birds as pets! Newspaper is also superb for washing windows, mulching a vegetable garden, locating dates and times of yard and garage sales, and starting a fire on a cold winter’s night. Once in a while I may actually read one first.

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