Martha and the Media

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For the last several years, one of my constant writing themes has been the role of the press in the expansion of government in this country. While my views on this subject are challenged by some (who, I believe, are looking at the wrong things), it seems that the mainstream press accounts of the recent federal indictments against Martha Stewart have demonstrated that journalists and the state constitute an unholy partnership.

While I do not have television reception in my home, it has been easy enough to follow the comments of journalists both in news accounts and on editorial pages, and I have concluded that most journalists are a menace to truth and freedom. What would have been a wonderful opportunity to ignite a national discussion of the scope and scale of federal laws instead has deteriorated into a sea of state worship and irrelevancy.

The first warning that the mainstream media was not going to be a constructive entity was the frenzied coverage of Stewart’s arrival at the federal courthouse in Manhattan. According to the news accounts I have read, the most important thing was … the color of her umbrella. Yes, here was a very successful businesswoman literally fighting for her freedom against what can only be described as questionable charges and the journalists were fixated on the fact that she was using an umbrella that matched the color of her clothes.

Of course, the press was trying to create a "theme," that even though Stewart is in serious legal trouble, she still is being "Miss Perfect," even down to the color of the umbrella she is carrying while going to the courthouse to hear the government accuse her of being a criminal worthy of 15 years or more in prison. (Further proof of the "Miss Perfect" nonsense has been the media frenzy over obtaining her "mug shot.") The coverage of the hearing itself revealed more press fixation with this "Miss Perfect" theme, that being Stewart’s demeanor and the tone of her voice when declaring herself "not guilty."

The press’s performance here has been sickeningly familiar, as the coverage deals with all of the outward appearances of law and the drama it creates and almost none of the truly important issues that this case actually represents. I will first list a few more "crimes" of the press before discussing what are the real legal issues here and why Stewart’s cause should be the cause of all people who still value liberty.

This case became famous last year after someone on a Congressional committee investigating Stewart’s December 2001 sale of 4,000 shares of ImClone stock illegally leaked information to the New York Times. In other words, there actually was a real crime committed, a clear violation of the law, and this crime was aided and abetted by the Times, which now is trying to posit itself as an entity concerned only about Truth and Justice in this case. I further note that U.S. Attorney James B. Comey, who has brought this case to trial, has expressed no interest whatsoever in solving what is perhaps the only real crime committed in this whole sorry affair. That is because in this case, lawbreaking has helped him, further proof that Comey is interested in the political benefits of this case, not in doing justice.

Another news story that went out on the Associated Press wires Thursday, June 5, described that the "securities fraud" charge against Stewart represented a "new twist" in the prosecution’s case. To put that in plain English, the prosecution is trying to create a criminal case that goes far beyond the boundaries of established criminal law. Stewart, in publicly proclaiming her innocence of the "crime" of insider trading, committed a crime because her statements apparently had a positive effect upon the stock price of her company.

I have read in no mainstream press accounts — none — that this action by Comey and his staff is nothing more than an attempt to criminalize a defense. The legal, not to mention Constitutional, ramifications of this charge are immense, yet nowhere does any mainstream journalist in either print or broadcast media mention this. Instead, we hear the "new twist" description, when in fact what we are seeing is absolute abuse of the law.

Journalists also have failed to look behind the "obstruction of justice" charges that Stewart now must try to disprove in court. So far, all I have seen in my extensive reading of this case has been the media simply explaining that Rule 1001 of the federal criminal code states that individuals cannot "obstruct" a federal criminal investigation.

Not surprisingly, U.S. attorneys have interpreted that rule as meaning that individuals who are being investigated must engage in self-incrimination, something expressly forbidden by the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Of course, U.S. attorneys themselves are not subject to the law, so it is permissible for them to lie, withhold evidence, and suborn perjury as they allegedly seek Truth, Justice, and the American Way. (Yes, supposedly U.S. Government employees are subject to the law, but in a de facto sense they are not, because when government employees break the law government must investigate itself. Thus, government "law enforcement" officials and U.S. attorneys pretty much are permitted to do whatever they want without fear of legal reprisals.)

The deeper legal and Constitutional issues behind the charges against Stewart would make for important topics of discussion in the media. Instead, we see the mainstream media doing little more than serving as the public relations arm of Comey and his staff. From the New York Times to the Washington Post to USA Today, the coverage of the Stewart case could have been written by U.S. Department of Justice employees themselves.

A few weeks ago, the Federal Communications Commission voted to loosen media ownership roles, a decision that has caused a great outcry by the minions of the mainstream press. This action, according to our "distinguished" journalists, "threatens our democracy" by failing to promote differing points of view in news coverage, as they claim that "concentrated" ownership will lead to "concentrated" news coverage.

I hate to be the bearer of bad new, but if the Stewart case is any indication of the ability of mainstream journalists to engage in independent thinking, then it would not matter if Rupert Murdoch owned every single commercial news outlet. Our "elite" journalists have proven once again that they are nothing more than flacks and lackeys for the Leviathan State. While it is fashionable for someone to say that the press has "missed the story," in this case it absolutely is true. The "real story" here is that the government once again is abusing its powers and that the press is greasing the skids. Free press, indeed.

June 13, 2003

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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