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The Press in Unprecedented Times

Mike Fancher’s Abstract Sullivan Conference

My generation of American editors and reporters might well be called the journalistic children of New York Times v. Sullivan. I entered college in 1964, starting on a path to a 40-year career in journalism. My education, training and work as a journalist were grounded in the broad safeguards to free expression provided by the landmark case.

The notion that journalists have a singular obligation to serve the general welfare is as old as the profession itself, dating from the Progressive Era at beginning of the 20th Century.  But, the freedom and constitutional rights enshrined in Sullivan, helped coalesce a particular sense of responsibility that guided the ethics and practices of the profession throughout most of my career. The social responsibility of “the press” as an institution was guided by the moral integrity and behavior of its practitioners rather than any government proscriptions. The values of individual journalists, as well as those of news organizations, were a good fit for the technology and economics of the era.

Now we are engaged in a great upheaval. Social and technological forces are transforming our notions of what is journalism and who is a journalist. I believe the journalistic grandchildren of the Sullivan decision will need to fully support the idea that freedom of the press belongs to the people, not selectively to the profession of journalists. And, they will best defend that freedom by embracing the public as full partners in all aspects of journalism, including a re-examination of its standards.

This must be journalism of and by the people, as well as for them.

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