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Perspective: Free Press Should Not Take Sides

By Pat Freibert

PatFreibert 2Our country’s founders recognized the value of a “free press” and memorialized it with constitutional protection – and hurrah for that. That guarantee carries with it an expectation that a free press, both print and electronic, report responsibly by informing citizens rather than propagandizing. In some cases, today’s media yields to the temptation to “take sides” in political matters. A recent example was a three-day period in mid-March when nearly every mainstream network was dominated by reports that President Trump “abruptly” dismissed 46 federal U.S. attorneys.

Federal attorneys are appointed by the currently serving president through his/her attorney general. Releasing those U.S. attorneys could hardly be considered “abrupt” since it occurred 53 days into the new presidency. The attorneys released had been appointed by the previous president and, since they are not appointed for lifetime positions but rather serve at the pleasure of the current president, their service concluded when the president who appointed them was no longer in office.

When a new administration takes office, federal attorneys – like ambassadors and many other presidential appointees – have traditionally submitted their resignations as a matter of procedure. If they do not submit their resignations, the president may release them and appoint his/her choices as replacements. Only one U.S. attorney failed to resign, so he was released. Reporters surely must know the procedure that presidential appointments end when a president is no longer in office. Yet, the event was depicted as some sort of wild departure from historic protocol by President Trump.

In the early ’90s, President Clinton’s clean sweep of federal prosecutors resulted in releasing more than 90 attorneys – nearly twice the number released by President Trump in March. There was little attention or criticism from most of the media at that time. One of the federal attorneys “fired” by the Clinton Administration was Kentucky’s own fearless U.S. Attorney Karen Caldwell, who was wrapping up her prosecution of 21 legislators and lobbyists found guilty of bribery and fraud in the wake of the “Boptrot” investigation. One of those ultimately convicted was the speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives.

I was in my seat on the floor of the House of Representatives on March 31, 1992, when FBI agents with subpoenas in hand started peeling off certain legislators and escorting them to adjacent offices for interviews. That was not a proud day for Kentucky, but it brought about the birth of a strict Code of Ethics for legislators, overseen by the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission. The Task Force that recommended and developed this code did so without the approval of legislative leadership, some of whom were targets of the investigation. Today Kentucky’s ethics laws serve as the model for many other states that have followed Kentucky’s example.

Do you remember the days when Americans considered “news reporting” publications in places like South American countries and Russia as propaganda organs?  Our hope is that our media in the United States never deteriorates to the level that it “take sides” in political reporting. Media needs to inform, not manipulate, misrepresent or “take sides” in its political coverage.

Many journalists of an earlier era, like Ernie Pyle and Edward R. Murrow, were considered patriots and straight shooters. They consistently reported to Americans hard-nosed, fact-based news and not personal opinions. Personal opinions belong in editorials, but not reported as news. Any attempts to misrepresent information do not bring credit to the noble field of journalism. Politicizing reporting will sully the history of so many dedicated journalists, some of whom lost their lives reporting from warfronts and untold disasters. Keep the good names sacred of those who practiced their craft with dedication and with honor.

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