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In Chaotic Era, Conference Aims to Amplify US 1st Amendment

First Martin Baron, left, executive editor of the Washington Post, speaks as David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, listens at the National First Amendment Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Oct. 22, 2018.
First Martin Baron, left, executive editor of the Washington Post, speaks as David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, listens at the National First Amendment Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Oct. 22, 2018.

Not long ago in the American republic, information was less chaotic — or, at least, seemed to be. Newspapers appeared reliably on stoops every morning. Reassuring men from three networks delivered the news at dinnertime. We knew what was true, what was false, what was important.

Except it never actually was that way. Not really. And we now know that like never before.

A generation-long technological rumpus that upended how information is delivered and gave everyone with a device in their pocket the ability to speak globally has revealed, as never before, the chaos that is free expression in the United States.

For two days in Pittsburgh, a national exploration of what the First Amendment means to America in 2018 dug into every corner of this notion to understand where we are, and where we're going, in terms of the rights Americans have to express themselves.

“Too many people in this country don't understand how freedom works in their native land,” said Maxwell King, former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and head of the Pittsburgh Foundation, a philanthropy that co-sponsored the event at Duquesne University.

In the spirit of the amendment itself, a barrage of provocative ideas surfaced. And, predictably when it comes to free speech, few produced unanimous conclusions.

Among news leaders, government officials and academics, the consensus seemed to be this: In an era upended by technology and the behaviors that have grown up around it, the First Amendment remains pivotal to a functioning democracy — perhaps more so than ever in a society increasingly suspicious of the role that the mass media plays.

“I don't believe democracies can exist without a free press,” Tom Ridge, secretary of Homeland Security under former Republican President George W. Bush and the onetime governor of Pennsylvania, said Monday.

Nevertheless, there's much to consider about the role of the First Amendment in our sometimes-brave new world, and the rapid-fire questions ran the gamut Sunday and Monday, as they are wont to do in a free society:

Is “fake news” — however it is defined, and whoever uses the term — protected speech? Who checks facts, and who watches them do it? How do we balance the desire for open debate and the rising need for “safe spaces” on college campuses? When are leaks legal?

And what is speech, precisely, in this new world? Am I expressing myself by my choice of locations, and does that make my GPS data protected expression? Are veiled dark-internet encouragements to hurt or dismember someone speech that should be protected? Are social networks the new arbiters of who can be amplified? Should they be required to police content?

Finally: What does it mean when the president of the United States continually takes verbal potshots at the press and encourages disdain for media whose stories run counter to his narrative?

“The social media companies themselves don't understand social media,” said Sree Sreenivasan, a leader in digital journalism and former associate dean of the Columbia Journalism School. He says Donald Trump's presidency was “a direct result of him understanding social media better than the social media companies.”

So how do we sort this all out? First of all, you probably can't. A strong portion of chaos is natural — healthy, even — when it comes to freedom of expression in a society based on personal liberty.

But the fragmentation of media, society and politics, and the willingness of partisans to exploit that to contentious ends, have made many wonder whether the relationship between polarization and unfettered, unverified expression is too corrosive. The approaching midterm elections lend an urgency to this as well.

“I think it's really hard to have a democracy when we don't agree on a baseline set of facts,” said Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post. That, he said, is where responsible journalism must play a role.

Other reflections from speakers at the conference:

THE NORTH KOREA EXAMPLE — Suki Kim, a journalist who went undercover in North Korea for six months to chronicle life there, spoke of the deep indoctrination she encountered in that society. “If you cannot tell the difference between what is true and not true,” she said, “it changes your foundations.”

THE SMORGASBORD MODEL — Ohio Gov. John Kasich, appearing via video, exhorted Americans to ingest their media mindfully — as one might consider choosing items from a restaurant buffet. “Don't be a siloed consumer of the press. Take a bite of everything,” Kasich said. “The ability to sample a lot and draw a conclusion is the best way to be a consumer of the news.”

THE EXPANDING WAYS WE COMMUNICATE — Noel Francisco, the solicitor general of the United States, marveled at how many more methods of communication exist than when the First Amendment was ratified in the 18th century. “We have a lot more speech today,” he said. “And I think that just means we will have a lot more kinds of speech that are protected.”
Hugh Hewitt, the radio host and media critic, took a moment to muse about the republic's founders as well. What, he wondered, might people who measured information's speed in days and weeks, not minutes and seconds, have made of this phantasmagorical media landscape that might well have left them, well, speechless?

“I wish we could summon their brains,” he said, “to deal with issues they could never have imagined.”