Civility and the First Amendment

Remarks from the

Biannual Mizzou Diversity Summit *

Oct. 30, 2012 | University of Missouri, Columbia

by Kenneth F. Bunting

Kenneth F. Bunting is the executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

Thank you. The opportunity to be on this panel was an honor, and accepting was something of a no-brainer if for no other reason “Civility and the First Amendment” is an extraordinarily fascinating topic. And, the overall theme of this two-day, biannual Diversity Summit: … “What’s Civility Got to Do with It? Engaging Effectively in a Diverse Community” is similarly appealing.

So, in my allotted ten minutes I am going to try to do the impossible.

Photo of Kenneth F. BuntingI am going to attempt to try to talk about the First Amendment, … the direct and inextricable relationship between free speech and other First Amendment freedoms … with “civility,” “respect for the divergent viewpoints” and recognition of how diversity itself as something strengthens us. I don’t disagree with a single word Sandy said about First Amendment protecting offensive, unpopular speech. But I think it is a tool of civil, respectful discourse.

And, I will attempt to carry that perhaps twisted perversion of the topic and theme from recent Facebook conversations back to the mindsets of America's Founding Fathers — or at least my personal perspective on their mindsets — when it comes to free speech.

Since it would be foolish, in addition to being impossible, to try and cover all of that in any kind of chronology, I will do little skipping around, stopping at various decades along that 236 year historical journey.

So, I will start in the late 1980s, early 1990s.

I was a frequent guest lecturer at the American Press Institute in Reston, Va., and my topic was “The Art of the Interview.” When I do training or give presentations to veteran journalists, I like to challenge conventional wisdom. So, ever the contrarian and provocateur, I began my hours-long dialogue with the thought that the mistake most journalists make in conducting effective interviews is not realizing that the interviewer's most-important skill is listening, not talking. It is not asking long-winded, challenging “gotcha” questions. But it is hearing what your interview subject has to say.

The “best, most important questions you will ask,” I used to say to circular rooms full of mid-career journalists who would come to the Press Institute, are questions like:

“What do you mean by that?”
“Can you explain?” Or, “Can you expound on that?”

Short questions in which you speak briefly, and then — and here’s the key — shut up and listen. I tried to make a point that no matter how sharp, informed and smart you might want to appear during the course of the interview, … the quote for your news story or the sound bite for your broadcast segment, will come from what's your interview subject has to say, not from those clever quick witted or profound things that you say.

Now, all but one of the years, that presentation at API went exceeding well. And I am certain that the journalists in the audience were left with some new insights about the importance of listening and hearing in conducting interviews.

But one year, I was stopped and challenged, in the first couple of minutes, by a young woman who would have none of it.

Her viewpoint was that interviews have to be tough, and that the best interviewers go at their subjects with nothing less than a prosecutorial zeal, … aimed at challenging them, catching them in lies, and letting them know when you're not buying what they are saying.

No matter how persuasive and eloquent I tried to be that day as the distinguished presenter at API, she simply could not buy into the notion that aggressive and respectful listening is an important tool of effective interviewing

I cannot recall whether she was in one of my 90-minute sessions, or one of the three-hour sessions. But I do recall that she challenged me from start to finish.

That young woman, by the way, later became a respected columnist in Detroit, a Pulitzer finalist and author of two books — and I suspect her viewpoint is the same now.

Even if not — even if she has come to recognize the sage wisdom of my presentation back in Reston in 1989 or 1990 — she'd be pleased to know that I get the very same challenge practically every Sunday. You see, when Tim Russert died in 2008, my wife Juli and I were saddened like the rest of the country, and the rest of the world of journalism. But because we had met him just a few short months before he died, perhaps our sadness was even more pronounced.

Now, some of you may recall, NBC took its time choosing a successor for Russert as moderator of Meet The Press. When they finally chose David Gregory weeks or months later, I applauded the choice, being a longtime fan of his. On the other hand, my wife Juli said, “Are you kidding? He's awful. He never challenges people. He lets them get away with all kinds of misstatements.”

Now I happen to think that Juli's assessment of David Gregory's interview skills was a bit harsh, a tad exaggerated, and unfair.

However, in all honesty, I have to admit there has been at least 100 times since he took over the show when Juli has pointed at the TV, and as Gregory was moving onto the next question, said, “How could he just let them get away with saying that?”

And those of you who are married will appreciate that my response has always been the always-acceptable, “Yes Darling. You are right.”

That admission notwithstanding, … I still appreciate as both a journalist and as a news consumer, that when Gregory finishes an interview, I know where the interview subject was coming from. And that's important.

It is particularly important in these times when there are so many angry, polarized voices in political discourse.

And I happen to be among those who thinks that journalism plays a role in fostering civility and respect in our society.

Without naming names or identifying the other party, I’d like to share with you a Facebook conversation between me and a dear friend — and I do mean a dear friend, not just a Facebook friend — from last week.

This is a friend with whom I have great mutual respect, despite the fact that she and I are polar opposites when it comes to politics. In fact, she used me as a reference when she applied earlier this year for staff position on the Rick Perry presidential campaign.

I cannot say whether using me as a reference had anything to do with the fact that she did not get the job. Of course, those of you who remember how short-lived Mr. Perry's campaign and frontrunner status will realize that she would've been unemployed again in a matter of days anyway.

On Facebook last week she wrote:

(Dorothy) It is so gratifying to be in a long line — the courthouse is literally swamped with people presumably on all sides of the aisle — talking about how proud they are to be here today. America is truly a good country!

(Kenneth Bunting) Were you voting early, Dorothy? Not allowed here in your home state.

(Dorothy) Yes — it starts about two weeks before Election Day. It's been twenty years since I voted in MO, but seems like it would drastically cut down on the lines on Nov. 6 to do so. Do you have mail-in voting for seniors and the disabled like in TX?

(Kenneth Bunting) No. Missouri is still one of those states in which one needs a reason to vote absentee. The funny thing — and it is almost poetic justice — is that my most recent former state, Washington, has been moving toward all-mail balloting. Being someone who gets all patriotic on election day, I had been a sometime lone voice against that. But now I am upset that I can't vote early in Missouri. I guess there is just no pleasing me.

(Dorothy) I agree — all-mail voting seems a breeding ground for fraud. The problem, Ken, is that nobody listens to you or me. We could set them straight!

That was the end of the Facebook conversation. I agreed with half of that last entry.

Our nation’s politics have not always been so bitter and divided. Nearly 40 years ago, our country dealt with a divisive issue for which the political stakes had never before been higher. But when six Republicans joined 17 Democrats in voting articles of impeachment against then-president Richard Nixon, … the debates that preceded the vote were civil and respectful, … nothing like what we might expect today.

But it was a different era. Neither politicians nor the public, despite widespread disgust over Watergate crimes and abuses that had been exposed, had an eagerness for impeachment.

If you don't believe me that debate was civil and respectful, don’t take my word, … go back and Google the Judiciary Committee impeachment hearings and judge for yourselves.

The journalistic landscape was different, too. Talk radio was not the pervasive media force that it is today. Cable television didn't exist. The networks wouldn't have dreamed of passing off an argumentative infotainment talk show as part of their news offerings. The punditry that mattered was all in newspapers, news magazines and a few intellectual journals. There were no bloggers doing their part to shape the national discourse.

I think when our Founding Fathers crafted the First Amendment, they wanted civility in our civic discourse and respect for people with whom we disagree. All five of the First Amendment freedoms lend themselves to that interpretation.

The freedom to speak freely, without fear of government interference or whether what you have to say is popular. The freedom of the news media to publish news, information and opinions without worrying if the news and commentary favored those in power. The freedom to worship how you choose, without worrying about government interference or whether your faith — or nonbelief — clashes with someone else's.

So, too, are last two First Amendment freedoms — right to appeal to government in favor of or against policies; and the right to gather in public to march, protest, demonstrate, carry signs and otherwise express their views in a nonviolent way — are all based on respect and civil discourse — and on the strength and richness of our diversity.

Those all work very well with respectful, civil discourse. And, I look forward to your questions.


* These remarks were delivered at the 2012 MizzouDiversity Summit held Oct. 29-30 in Memorial Union of the University of Missouri-Columbia campus. The summit brings the campus community together bi-annually to dialogue and plan strategies which help strengthen the MU identity as an environment or culture that values diversity in its many ways and forms. The Civility and the First Amendment session is presented by the Missouri School of Journalism.

Kenneth F. Bunting is the executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. The NFOIC is a nonpartisan alliance of citizen-driven nonprofit freedom of information organizations, academic and First Amendment centers, journalistic societies and attorneys. Before joining the NFOIC and the Missouri School of Journalism, Bunting spent parts of four decades as a journalist, executive and leader in the newspaper industry.

Other speakers in addition to Bunting included: Charles Davis, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and the facilitator of the Media of the Future Initiative for Mizzou Advantage as well as former executive director of NFOIC, and Sandra Davidson, an associate professor who teaches communications law at the Missouri School of Journalism and an adjunct professor at the School of Law. — eds.