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Members of Congress Criticizing Newspaper's Decisions About Which Columnists To Employ:

Fellow lawprof Mark Scarberry asked the following on a lawprof list; I asked him for permission to post it here, and he graciously gave it:

Twenty-four Democratic members of Congress (including nine from California) have written to the Los Angeles Times to "object" specifically "as Members of Congress" to the dismissal of Robert Scheer, a long-time LA Times columnist. See [here] (by way of [HughHewitt.com]).

I suppose that if a similar letter came from the administration, objecting to the dismissal at the same time of the LA Times conservative political cartoonist Michael Ramirez, we would hear complaints that the administration was intimidating the press in violation of the values underlying the First Amendment.

I wonder whether list members think that the 24 members of Congress should have considered those constitutional values and refrained from writing such a letter "as Members of Congress."

My view is that it's not improper for Congressmen to write such a letter; I doubt that a newspaper will find it particularly intimidating (in the sense of threatening government action, as opposed to threatening public condemnation). Nonetheless, it struck me as an interesting question that was worth reporting.

statfan (mail):
Hm, what if they instead called *for* the dismissal of a journalist? Would the result be the same?
11.30.2005 8:01pm
Master Shake:
Just seems like kind of a strange letter for them to write, but I agree it has about zero intimidation factor.
11.30.2005 8:10pm
John Armstrong (mail):
I think it's not inappropriate to write such a letter in one's personal capacity, but inherent in the statement that it's an action "as Members of Congress" is the assertion that this is the will of their constituencies. That may not make the letter specifically inappropriate, but it would give me pause before writing it inthat capacity.
11.30.2005 8:50pm
DJB:
Well, I don't know about *zero* intimidation factor -- Congress has been on a bit of a "telling media businesses what they're allowed to do and say" kick lately. It hasn't affected newspapers much, but certainly entertainment media have felt the sting.

So, were I the head of a media company, I think I'd probably get a bit nervous when any member of congress turned a stern eye on me.
11.30.2005 8:50pm
Salaryman (mail):
EV thinks "it's not improper for Congressmen to write such a letter." What does "not improper" mean here? That it is not illegal? Does it mean "not inadvisable"? And if it does mean "not inadvisable" does that signify that writing the letter as "Members of Congress" was a good idea (i.e. "advisable") or does it simply mean that EV is neither approving or condemning it?

My decidedly non-expert view is that it would be far more advisable and proper to write such letters as plain old US Citizens Nancy Pelosi, Edward Kennedy, etc. Yeah, everyone knows who they are, but there's something heavy-handed about writing in an official capacity that is inherently intimidating, even if the particular recipient of the letter is not intimidated. ("Hi, I'm not writing you as a regular guy, but as a Senator. You know, in my capacity as someone who passes laws that affect lots of industries, grants or denies favors and generally throws a lot of weight around. Keeping that firmly in mind, here's what I think you should do . . .").

Obviously, this implicit message could not be avoided in any correspondence from Congress, however delicatedly worded ("Hi, we're just 535 regular ol' guys 'n' gals and here's what we think you should do. . . "). Nonetheless, the express invocation of status as legislators in such a letter seems inappropriate -- shouldn't Congresspersons take action "as Members of Congress" only when they're doing things that fall within the scope of their duties as Members of Congress? And, if so, is telling newspapers which columns or cartoons should run, or which columnists or cartoonists should be hired or fired within those duties?

Also, I can't recall if Strunk and White said it, but if they didn't, they should have: USE LITOTES SPARINGLY! Otherwise, we end up in a rhetorical world where not unquick, not unbrown foxes jump over not unlazy, not ungrey poodles. And who wants that?
11.30.2005 10:47pm
Bruce Wilder (www):
The consolidation of news media in the hands of a few large media companies means that almost all newspapers, broadcast news, cable news, and radio is in corporate, right-wing hands. The L.A. Times, a stalwart of the "liberal media" of the 1960's and 1970's, when it was controlled by an unexpectedly liberal scion of the Chandler family, is now controlled by the stalwartly Republican, Tribune Company of Chicago. Just as the Washington Post and the New York Times drifted toward the Right in the 1990's, so goes the L.A. Times.

To survive politically, and to have their voices heard in a public discourse dominated by television and a few newspapers, Democrats -- especially liberal Democrats -- are going to have do something to overcome the barrier erected by a uniformly corporate, variously right-wing news media.

They can buy their own, a la Air America. They can use the power and authority of government, when in power to restructure and reform the Media. Protesting, in letters to the editor, seems vainglorious, at best.
12.1.2005 12:40am
David Matthews (mail):
"They can use the power and authority of government, when in power to restructure and reform the Media."

"Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press"

I'm not sure, exactly, what "authority" they have, Democrat or Republican, to "restructure and reform the Media."
12.1.2005 8:46am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
Bruce,

The view from the right is, of course, just the opposite. Instead of looking at corporate ownership, they look at party identifications of the journalists and come to the opposite conclusion that you do. I would also suggest that you get to the same conclusion if you look at that paper's reporting of the war or on George Bush.
12.1.2005 9:38am
corngrower:
Bruce Wilder;

There's a thing out there somewhere called the Constitution. And I think, maybe, something about the freedom of the press, is mentioned.

Consolidation of the media. Why, Why, Why, is the govt giving a rats ass about the media. Go back to that constitution thingy. It prevents the govt from any action.

Pay attention. The Democrats have prettty much the entire media to themselves. Proof? United Nations--Oil for food--Like as in the Secretary General Of the United Nations has a son getting kick backs from Iraq? Lots of reporting there. Some low level Congressmen wants the immmediate withdrawl of troops from Iraq, He gets an entire week or more of news coverage, Just seems his non binding resolution failed with less that 10 votes in his favor, Huh/ whens the last time some goof ball congressmen offered a bill that got less then 10 votes get a week in the news cycle? Yeh , the media is controlled by the radical right wing conspiricy!
12.1.2005 9:39am
John Richardson (mail):
Those congressman are free to criticize the LA Times all they want about firing Robert Scheer. However, having listened to him rant and rave on the NPR program, "Left, Right, and Center", I say good riddance to bad rubbish.
12.1.2005 10:06am
corngrower:
A person has the right to keep the govt from restricting their right to speek. However 24 elected congressmen signing a letter questioning the actions of a newspaper, violates the consttution. That would define the letter as unconstitutional. Hence, each signatory should resign their office.
12.1.2005 10:44am
Colin:
Corngrower:

"Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

Signing a letter is not making a law. Perhaps you're suggesting that the newspaper has an unenumerated right to autonomy against the intrusion of a congressional minority?
12.1.2005 11:19am
CJColucci (mail):
Both the actual letter and the hypothetical letter from "the Administration" would be: (a) permitted by the first amendment, since it's just an expression of opinion by government officials; and (b) pretty damn stupid. That said, whether one or the other is "intimidating" is an empirical question. Who wrote the letter for "the Adminstration" and what is his/her and its track record versus 24 members of a 535-member body controlled by the opposite party.
12.1.2005 12:49pm
Sebastianguy99 (mail):
It seems that there might be some hipocracy going on here. It would seem that those who find something improper with a congressional comment in this instance, would also find nothing wrong with Congress taking action in regards to the language, violent content, nudity, etc.. of television, music, movies, and video games.

It seems to me that the potential for harm, insofar as the 1st Amendment is concerned, is much greater with such action, and not with a non-binding comment from a small minority.
12.1.2005 1:14pm
roy solomon (mail):
Corngrower says,
However 24 elected congressmen signing a letter questioning the actions of a newspaper, violates the consttution.


In what way exactly?
12.1.2005 1:30pm
Bruce Wilder (www):
Bruce Hayden: A few minutes ago, I read a quoted review of Bush's latest Iraq speech, by the conservative blog, Powerline. They claim Bush's Iraq war oratory has been the most masterful series of speeches since Lincoln in the Civil War. If that is the conservative standard of assessment, then, of course, the Media's coverage of Bush and the Iraq War seems biased in its unfavorable tone.

From the perspective of a liberal Democrat, though, the history of Whitewater coverage and the coverage of Gore in 2000 stand out as object lessons. I have not seen a recent survey of journalists, regarding their ideological or partisan affinities, but I doubt that it would show anything like what surveys showed 50 years ago, when there really was a liberal media. Anyone can do a simple count of pundits and anchors on talk radio, cable news and network news, and see, that by any measure, liberals and progressives are a decided minority, and are often excluded altogether, while extreme right-wingers are frequently featured.
12.1.2005 1:37pm
Californio (mail):
The entire episode reeks. Ccongressmen/women should say what they mean - or don't say anything. If they meant "The firing of columnist X angers me and I will look for an attempt to hurt you organization in my official capacity as a member of congress..." well, that is scary. If they did not mean that - then what sort of B.S. posing was that? What about giving a columnist a raise? Or other contract terms. Should a congressman, in his official capacity, insert themselves in that relationship absent illegal activity, discrimination, et al.? It all lends the appearance of insider preferential treatment by public officials using public resources. And while this may be the reality, is this what we the people seek to allow or promote?
12.1.2005 1:42pm
steveh2 (mail):
What is frightening to me is that members of Congress do not seem to realize that the only thing a member of Congress should be doing "as a Member of Congress" is proposing, analyzing, or voting on legislation. This struck a chord with me yesterday as I was reading an article in the local paper about the local US Atty being considered for an open Magistrate Judge position. The article quoted someone pointing out that Senator Orrin Hatch was aware of the US Atty's interest in the position.

Excuse me? How the f*** could that matter? Magistrate Judges are appointed by the district judges. Hatch is not a district judge. Why should anyone inform Hatch of one's interest in becoming a Magistrate? This is the same issue when congressional representatives have to sign nominations to the service academies, or intercede with regulators on behalf of individuals, or whatever.

This should be totally out of the purview of legislators.

(And corngrower, that wasn't Murtha's proposal that drew fewer than 10 votes. It was a Republican proposal, and it was widely publicized when it happened.)
12.1.2005 2:10pm
Splunge (mail):
Not only do I agree with Eugene that it's not improper for the 24 Congressmen to write such a letter, but I'm glad they did. It's always very helpful when narcissistic asses open their mouths wide and bray, so I'm in favor of encouraging them to do so by any reasonable means. Congressmen, like anything potentially poisonous that hides under rocks, are far more dangerous when they keep quiet.

In fact, I'd like to make it illegal for them to write letters as private citizens, for the same reason that, if you get a call from San Quentin, a recorded voice reminds you you're talking to a criminal. I mean, what if someone got a letter from a Congressman posing as an ordinary citizen? The recipient might accidentally imagine the letter expressed a thoughtful point of view from someone of integrity and common sense!

I wouldn't go so far as to say Congressmen should be branded or anything, but I could see having them wear a large scarlet "C" on their power ties. Mmmmm....also, given their high rate of recidivism, I could also see requiring them to be entered, post-conviction, into a national database, so that concerned mothers of pre-school children could easily find out if one was living in her neighborhood...
12.1.2005 2:18pm
corngrower:
Steveh2;

Yes I know Murtha did not author the bill. He just voted against it. AND immediatly started screeming that what the bill stated should have already started.

I wounder what would happen if 24 Republican Senators wrote a letter to planned parenthood objecting to the leaders activities? I'm guessing that the Vast Right Wing majority that contols the media would totally ignore that story in direct porportion to the attention they are giving this story...ooops havent seen this story in the right wing controlled media.

And yes...It says...'Congress shall make no law' So.. please explain how scotus can ban prayer at a highschool football game???
12.1.2005 4:13pm
dk35 (mail):
Corgrower:

How about this compromise. You can get on the publicly funded loudspeaker at the High School football game to lead a prayer, as long as I can use the loudspeaker after you to point out that there is absolutely no proof that God exists, and that morality shouldn't be measured by the level to which one adheres to unproven superstitions, but rather by the extent of one's commitment to maximizing people's access to the rights, privileges, and resources we have available.

Deal?
12.3.2005 10:53am