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05/08/91

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Wicker decries 'nibbling' at First Amendment freedoms

STANFORD -- Government restrictions of Gulf War coverage, efforts to impose campus orthodoxy, the retreat of television networks from news coverage -- all have nibbled at the First Amendment but none have yet swallowed it, journalist Tom Wicker said May 6 at Stanford.

"I don't think the First Amendment will ever be abolished or sharply restricted by legal or political action, or as a result of public outcry," Wicker said at the outset of his talk. However, he added, because Americans often are intolerant of dissent and unorthodoxy, they might eventually lose some or most of the amendment's protection.

Wicker, who gave the annual Carlos McClatchy Memorial Lecture, writes the "In the Nation" column for the New York Times, where he has worked since 1960.

Saying he was "dismayed" by the acquiescence of the American press and public in government control of information about the Persian Gulf War, Wicker predicted that Americans will never again see the kind of bold and independent war coverage provided in the past by such journalists as Edward R. Murrow, Ernie Pyle, Marguerite Higgins or Eric Sevareid.

"Having learned how to control information to its intended purpose, and how to make the public like it, the government will never again give correspondents the freedom they need to report an American war in all its dimensions," Wicker said.

In surrendering so easily to government control of the news, the press was following what it perceived to be the public's wishes, Wicker said.

"The public wanted good news to cheer about and the Pentagon was prepared to provide it. The press, desperately in search of a really smash-hit story, at least since the Iran-Contra scandal, was only too eager to serve up popular news."

Saddest of all, Wicker said, Americans were happy with what they saw and read, taking it for the real thing, and not realizing the extent to which they knew only what the government wanted them to know.

In any case, the mail he received in response to his columns opposing the war convinces him that the public was glad to see control of, "a press it dislikes, distrusts, believes arrogant, irresponsible and sometimes unpatriotic," he said.

Turning to the college campus, an arena with which he said he is less familiar, Wicker tackled the subject of "political correctness," or PC, the idea that some views on cultural and political questions are acceptable, and other views are not.

"If I may judge myself, and who better," he said, "I think I am somewhat more PC than otherwise." He said that he supports black and ethnic studies courses and most aspects of feminism, and having grown up in an "openly racist society" in North Carolina, despises racism.

However, he said, "the proposition that some ideas are clearly correct and all other ideas and the words that express them are palpably incorrect seems to me to vitiate the very idea of ideas. It substitutes unanimity for diversity, and it means enforcement, not argument."

It is well to remember, he said, that the notion of PC is a reaction, perhaps an overreaction, to a time of all-white, all-male, all-Western education, presented by white, male, Western faculty to students of much the same description.

"If it is argued that PC is an effort to impose an orthodoxy on education, it can and should be argued in response that it is also a reaction against a more, or at least equally, overwhelming orthodoxy of the past," Wicker said.

He opposes all orthodoxies, he said. "The moment PC attitudes become an effort to impose a new orthodoxy, to substitute new restrictions for old ones, and to prevent supposedly incorrect ideas, whatever they may be, from being heard or held, count me out.," Wicker said.

Another "nibble" at the First Amendment has been made by the three major television networks, which, Wicker said, "are retreating from their previously assumed responsibility to report the news in depth and in detail."

Network ownership now demands that news divisions make money, or at least not lose money, he said.. Since serious coverage of public affairs does not produce high-enough ratings, he said, it is being replaced by info-tainment, such as,an "in-depth" interview with a rock star or a football player.

Newspapers are following the lead of television in retreating from solid news to info-tainment, he said, citing as an example his own newspaper's prominent display of a report on Kitty Kelley's "scandal-dripping" biography of Nancy Reagan.

"I think you will see large-circulation newspapers turn more and more to soft news," he said, "leaving serious discussion of news to publications that don't have to depend on mass circulation."

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