Denver Bar Association
November 1999
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Don't Shoot! Messenger Still Needed

by Tom Kelly


Book Reviewed

Don't Shoot the Messenger
by Bruce W. Sanford
The Free Press
$25.00, 257 pages

Bruce Sanford, one of the nation’s most prominent press lawyers, has the gift of gab. He speaks in a smooth modulated pitch, like a tenor sax, with silken turns of phrase, picturesque rhetoric and engaging anecdotes. At a breakfast of media defense lawyers in New York nearly three years ago, he spoke of a book he was writing, glibly recounting tales of penal experience that I assumed would be the stuff of the book.

To my surprise, "Don’t Shoot the Messenger" has much more than the promised war stories. Sanford has immersed himself in some of the most challenging topics of our time: degeneration of public discourse, erosion of public and judicial regard for the media, the role of the media and where it all is taking us.

What has happened to public discourse in recent decades, he posits, is the result of a symbiosis between the media and the public, a codependent relationship in which one gives the other "what they want."

For instance, in a chapter titled "Dan Quayle Meets Hillary Clinton," he analyzes recent examples of media myth-making: on the right, Quayle as a shallow trust-funder, and on the left, Clinton as a manipulative shrew.

He concludes that the "myths" aren’t the result of media bias in any political or social sense but stem from the media’s willingness to satisfy the public’s need for heroes, villains and simple "truths."

Sanford’s "public" is a schizophrenic lot, composed of Jeffersonian citizens capable of informed self-government, who resent it when the media appear to be underestimating their intelligence, and also made up of lazy, gullible folks envisioned by Camus (the essence of modern man is that "he fornicated and read newspapers"). It includes those who decry the excessive JonBenet Ramsey coverage and yet grab the paper to read every word.

This public has, indeed, lured mainstream media into territory previously dominated by the supermarket tabloids. But the press, Sanford says, has always suffered excess with little public outcry.

What has changed is perception: The media, Americans have come to believe, have foregone civic duty in worship of the bottom line.

And this raises serious questions: Can we depend on the media to correct false ideas, such as racial inferiority, if these ideas have popular acceptance—largely with the help of manipulated media? Will the press be willing to challenge an unjust social policy as reliably as it will uncover oral sex in the White House? For Sanford, it’s an article of faith that, public perception to the contrary, we can still count on true journalism to do the right thing. I agree.

Whatever the truth, Sanford convincingly argues that skepticism of the media makes the public less willing to tolerate a sometimes overzealous and "bumptious" press and contributes to the current push to legislate political correctness.

And, most important, Sanford believes the perception has also infected judicial attitudes.

In several very readable yet legally precise chapters, Sanford describes real cases in which the perception of media-as-profit-monger appears to have resulted in rulings that significantly limited the amount of information available to the pubic.

Sanford reminds us that our Constitution is premised on the lessons of history: that incursions of the ability if the media to gather and report news, and a willingness to become dependent on government for our understanding of human events, is the most certain road to loss of freedom.

"Don’t Shoot the Messenger" is a good read for those who enjoy clever wordsmithing, such as the description of former NBC President Michael Gartner as "a man whose tongue can clip a hedge." The book is also full of historical notes that will be entertaining for media buffs, including its citing of the source of the popular saying, "Dog bites man, that’s not news. Man bites dog, that’s news!"

Much of Sanford’s analysis is anecdotal—but, hey, he’s dealing with a topic on which a more sociologically sophisticated approach would be excruciatingly boring. "Don’t Shoot the Messenger" takes on a very important, tough issue and adds understanding to the forces that threaten free press in America. Many readers will find it profoundly disturbing; all will find it thought provoking.

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