Alan Barth, in his Sept. 5 article on this page, has given a keen insight into the significance of that portion of the First Amendment that provides that the Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press - a freedom without which all other freedoms would soon evaporate. Theodore Voorhee's response of Sept. 24 not only misses Barth's point; it provides excellent support for the proposition that writers and publishers, and no one else - certainly not the government - should be responsible for the contents of the press.
As long as one deals with anything involving human beings, there will be no way to avoid irresponsibility on the part of some of them. Barth neither advocates nor glorifies irresponsibility on the part of the press, as Voorhees would have you believe; at most, Barth tolerates it. Barth does, however, fear government irresponsibility - that is something he is not willing to tolerate. Nor were the authors of the First Amendment.
Voorhees's article is replete with value judgments on which he relies to support his position that it is a bad thing to put up with the press's irresponsibility. For one thing, he concludes that "the moral climate of the country has deteriorated sharply in the last several decades," but a review of our country's history will show that there were many periods when persons in high, low, public and private places lived by standards far lower than those in force today. Voorhees also concludes that Barth pushes the press's freedom too far when he asserts that the government is barred from dictating the course of action of the press. Voorhees's conclusion actually implies that a newspaperman ought not be free to write that he should be free of government interference.
Voorhees hits below the belt when he says that Barth needs to be reminded that the Watergate investigation was doen on a wholly responsible basis. Nothing in Barth's article suggests that he has a different opinion or that he believes that a newspaper should be anything other than responsible.
Nor is Voorhees persuasive when he points out that, the First Amendment notwithstanding, the Federal Communications Commission is around to "remind broadcasters of the legal obligation to comply with the 'public interest, convenience and necessity.' "I have long been troubled by the anomalies reached by lumping the press and the electronic media into one group. Obviously, there must exist somebody who will be the final arbiter as to what the public reads or hears or sees. There is nothing illogical about having a private party serve as the final arbiter for the printed word and picture (which can be brought into being by anyone without infringing on anyone else's ability to do the same), and having a public entity serves as the final arbiter for words and pictures that can be communicated to the world at large through but a relatively small number of conduits.
Once a radio or television broadcaster obtains the exclusive access to one of a limited number of available conduits, no else can use that particular conduit, whereas if someone puts out a newspaper or a periodical or newsletter or handbill, no other person's right to do the same thing has been reduced. Thus, so long as the electronic arts cannot provide an infinite number of conduits, there is logical justification for the existence of the Federal Communications Commission; no such justification exists for a governmental final arbiter in the case of the press.
Voorhees cites various consequences of irresponsible acts on the part of the press, yet even in doing so, he proves the opposite. He refers to the possibility of a "newspaper trial" of an accused who may be imprisoned "as the result of publication of a coerced confession (gained by police brutally)." Gained by police brutality? How but in an unfettered press is the very existence of police brutality, referred to only parenthetically by Voorhees, going to come to light?
It is toward the end of Voorhees's article that I find the best argument in support of a strict construction of the First Amendment. Voorhees is concerned that if werely on individual reporters and editors to be responsible, "we may be doomed to live with a least common denominator for the press, which at times has proved very low." I can face this calmly, especially since it's only going to happen "at times." It is a doom that is far preferable to the destiny that would befall us if there were a governmental veto power of what is going to appear in the press. Does Voorhees want the government to be the one to say when the press has reached a low point that is not protected by the Constitution? Once that power is in the hands of a government, any government, the citizen's lives will inevitably reach a point far lower than any that even an irresponsible press can reach.
Let us all decry irresponsibility. Let us eliminate it. But until we do, irresponsibility will, sad to say, remain with us, and the only real choice we have is: Whose irresponsibility is going to do us the least harm? If the choice lies between governmental irresponsibility and press irresponsibility - well we know how Barth voted and how Voorhees voted. I'll vote with Barth.