D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e  April 2005


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What's Fit to Print

Could the First Amendment pass today?


Before you use it to line the birdcage, take another look at the publication you hold in your hands. When you think about it, in the long history of human endeavor, the existence of a publication like Desert Exposure—or The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Mad magazine or Scuba Diving, for that matter—is remarkable. No government official has approved what you read in these pages. Nothing herein has been censored before it reaches your hands. No commissar or curate stood by, ready to stop publication if something upsetting to authorities rolled off the presses. Since the invention of movable type, the nations that have enjoyed such freedom number all too few; the populations even today whose press is uncensored and uncoerced remain rare across the globe.

And that freedom of the press we take for granted is being undermined—not only in distant dictatorships, but right here in America, in ways large and small. Journalists are going to jail for refusing to reveal their sources in the investigation of federal leaks about Valerie Plame's CIA connections. Jeff Gannon, a representative of a Republican Party Web site, got White House press credentials, where he lobbed softball questions until being "outed" as a ringer. The federal government has paid opinion writers to flog White House positions in their columns. More than 20 federal agencies, including the State Department and the Defense Department, are creating fake TV news clips, part of a Bush administration blitz that's cost taxpayers $254 million.

But it's not just these erosions of respect for a free press in Washington and America's media capitals that leave the First Amendment on shaky ground. The 2004 "State of the First Amendment" report by the First Amendment Center (www.firstamendmentcenter.org) includes a survey of adult Americans in which 42 percent say they think "the press in America has too much freedom."

Among the next generation, it's far worse. A frightening survey of more than 100,000 high-school students released by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation earlier this year found that half thought newspapers should not be allowed to publish freely without government approval of their stories. When read the exact text of the First Amendment, more than one in three students said it goes "too far." Only 83 percent even agreed that people in America should be allowed to express unpopular views.

As Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy has observed, "The First Amendment would have trouble today if it were proposed as a constitutional amendment."

Here in the Southwest, it's state legislators who have shown ignorance and disrespect of press freedom. In Arizona last month, legislators sought to eliminate state funding from all college newspapers because the stories being published are "too controversial." In New Mexico, the House approved a bill sponsored by Rep. Larry Larranga of Albuquerque during the last session that would require daily newspapers to print obituaries—which some papers charge for—for free. Regardless of whether you think it's a nice thing for newspapers to note the passing of local citizens at no charge, how is that any of the state's business? Imagine if the state required some other enterprise to give away part of its inventory—all hardware stores must give free hammers to anyone over 65, say, or free ice cream cones for all kids on Tuesdays.

Much of the damage to America's press in recent months has been self-inflicted, of course. Tight-fisted corporate owners (happily, not a problem here at Desert Exposure) have slashed newsroom budgets to the point where at one paper, the aptly named Mankato (Minn.) Free Press, the executive editor recently eliminated her own job in order to meet her masters' demands for profit. CBS' bobbling of the purported story on President Bush's military service helped push anchor Dan Rather into retirement. Far more serious, if less well-publicized, was the media's role in the build-up to our invasion of Iraq, its complicity in supporting the myth of weapons of mass destruction. At least Dan Rather's mistakes didn't cost more than 1,500 American lives—and counting.

But a free press' wrong turns and occasional blind spots shouldn't in turn blind us to the essential role it plays in a free society. Only in an atmosphere of free-flowing information and lively exchange of ideas—even ideas we hate—can democracy thrive. When the government or civic apathy begin to shut off this indispensable "oxygen," freedom of all kinds—not only freedom of the press—suffocates.

That's a responsibility we take seriously here in our little corner of the free press. This issue marks our second anniversary at the helm of Desert Exposure—a remarkable span in which the publication has grown and thrived beyond our wildest dreams, thanks to the support of readers and advertisers across southwest New Mexico. Besides printing more pages and reaching more readers, of course, we've recently expanded beyond ink on paper: Most of the content of each issue (as well as searchable back issues) is now available online at www.desertexposure.com.

You can help support Desert Exposure and steer us into our third year by giving us your feedback, using the survey on page 7 of this issue. The survey represents your annual opportunity to tell us what you like and what you skip in each issue. Please take the time to "vote" for your favorite columnists and standing features—because yes, we do use the results to help us fine-tune our lineup. (Note to Henry Lightcap—you can vote for yourself only once, got that? Once!) We also use the survey data to better meet the needs of our advertisers, without whom this publication wouldn't exist.

You can tear out or photocopy the survey form and mail or fax it to us (PO Box 191, Silver City, NM 88062, fax 534-4134), or just type the question numbers and the letters for your answers and email to survey@desertexposure.com. This year, for the first time, you can also complete the survey online, at

www.desertexposure.com/survey

It will take just a minute or two, but your input will help guide us all year long.

Oh, and 10 lucky respondents to our survey, picked at random, will win free Desert Exposure gear. Imagine yourself the envy of friends and neighbors, decked out in an exclusive Desert Exposure polo or T-shirt, sporting a Desert Exposure cap or sipping your morning java out of a Desert Exposure mug.

You just might discover that freedom of the press isn't just good for democracy—it can also be fashionable.

David A. Fryxell is editor and publisher of Desert Exposure.

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