Saturday, January 23, 2010

"The Supreme Court Calls for Increased Investigative Reporting"

It might as well have been the headline. As if the news of this past week wasn't already keeping journalists running at full speed (i.e., the Haitian earthquake, a Republican elected from Massachusetts, escalating joblessness, Roe v Wade anniversary, etc.), the Supreme Court made a stunning announcement that surely will demand more of reporters in the future. In a 5-4 decision, it repealed a decades-old law that banned the federal government from limiting corporate spending on campaigns.

As if the latest campaign ads weren't ugly enough, the ruling can be seen as a wide open door for big businesses to spend big bucks on attacks ads in order to get what—and who—they want. The 5 judges in favor said the decision enhanced the First Amendment, allowing 'companies and unions' the right to free speech; the 4 dissenters said such corporate money would muddy the waters of democracy.

In his 90-page opinion, dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens, an 89-year old soft-spoken Republican and former antitrust lawyer from Chicago, wrote that, "The court's blinkered and aphoristic approach to the First Amendment may well promote corporate power at the cost of the individual and collective self-expression." His 5 colleagues, in other words, were wrong to treat corporate speech the same as that of human beings.

I'll say. What this means for journalism, of course, is that its role as a watchdog of already greedy powers will become all the more essential—and probably dangerous. If corporate America spends more of its advertising money to elect its officials of choice, reporters are going to have to scramble all the harder to make sure the public knows—really knows—what candidates stand for, who's backing them and why. Their investigating will become crucial linchpins to a democratic lifestyle; their work will be harder than ever, in part because it will have to compete against what will surely be louder, more mean-spirited and well-funded campaigns.

Which worries me. Considering the economic disarray of journalism today, how will we afford to pay reporters to do the one thing most necessary for a democracy: report? But with this new ruling, maybe the better question is, how can we afford not to? Because ultimately it will be the majority of citizens across the country—the 'human beings'—who will be the losers here.

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