Bruce W. Sanford (1999). Don't Shoot the Messenger: How Our Growing Hatred of the Media Threatens Free Speech for All of Us. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield). vi + 257 pp. ISBN 0-7425-0837-4. Notes, bibliography, index.
The title and subtitle of this book explains its theme-which doesn't mean that it shouldn't be read. Sanford, one of the best known First Amendment attorneys in the U.S., doesn't pull his punches. Starting its prologue with the Gannett Co. payment of more than $10 million to Chiquita Brands International and disavowing of a story that may well have been true rather than go before a jury, and going on through the first chapter ("The Canyon of Distrust") and its litany of examples of "news media as target," Sanford quickly gets the reader's attention.
Well documented, Don't Shoot the Messenger covers the origins and causes of this situation, and then moves on to the unintended consequences-resulting in the public's loss of both information and a variety of points of view. The press has its own priorities-survival and profits, not necessarily in that order-which may go counter to the needs of the citizenry. This conflict-combined with the media's relentless search for material that will interest or titillate the public in order to "sell papers" and receive advertising revenue-has led to today's current massive mistrust of the press. Further, there has developed an unlikely alliance between government, business and the public on one side against the press, which wonders what happened to the idea that its function was to help the public through oversight of government and surveillance of the environment in order to give citizens the information they need to make rational decisions in a democracy. Obviously, if the public doesn't trust the media, then there is no chance of a common front against those who would discard our freedoms.
Sanford probably has been involved (typically, defending the rights of the media) with more major law cases involving the media than any other attorney-and he knows the subject he writes about forwards and backwards. His book mentions many villains and few heroes. He is worried, and rightly so. After reading this book, it is likely that the reader will be worried also.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2003 (15:1), pp. 53-54.