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County Hall Corner: Neutered News

Back in the forgotten days of real journalism, a big story was described as a ‘front-page story,’ and its importance was shown by the headline’s font size. So, for many newspapers, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, or President Kennedy was assassinated, the headline filled half of the front page, known as ‘above the fold.’ Today,

Back in the forgotten days of real journalism, a big story was described as a ‘front-page story,’ and its importance was shown by the headline’s font size. So, for many newspapers, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, or President Kennedy was assassinated, the headline filled half of the front page, known as ‘above the fold.’ Today, it is what network news chooses to highlight, or news sites like Google news would feature on their pages that are ‘above the fold.’ The media giants are the ones that determine what is ‘news’ and what is not.

This is one reason that I completely boycott all television news and search probably fifteen to twenty news sites daily from a variety of political persuasions to assess what is really going on in my area, my country, and the world.

On September 15th, Google News featured articles on the climate change perspective of Trump and Biden related to California wildfires, emergency room visits in Oregon due to wildfire smoke, Hurricane Sally’s approach toward Biloxi, Mississippi, and a judge blocking asylum restrictions enforced by the Trump Administration. Yet, the story that should have been “above the fold” is one that was completely ignored.

The day before, September 14th, Federal Judge William Stickman ruled in the case of County of Butler vs. Governor Wolf that substantial portions of the governor’s shutdown orders were unconstitutional. This has tremendous significance nationwide as it is the first time that there has been a recognized challenge to the ‘emergency’ powers that most of the nation’s governors have exercised. Instead of this extremely consequential important action, Google news featured a judge blocking restrictions to asylum seekers. An interesting distinction is that this story was targeted against President Trump, and the challenge to emergency powers reflected negatively toward Governor Wolf.

Of course, media sources are certainly free to feature whatever they consider important, but the public also has the freedom not to accept it, and they have been doing so.

In 1976, 72 percent of the public stated they trusted the media, whereas today it is 32 percent. In fact, a recent Gallup poll showed that the media ranked dead last in trust among all institutions polled.

It is fair game for the media to criticize the government, and in fact, this is one of the reasons that freedom of the press was placed in the first amendment to the US Constitution. The public deserves to know the backstory to issues related to government at all levels. (One of the reasons why this column exists, by the way).

But going back now to the current situation where over two-thirds of the public distrust what they read or hear in the news could possibly be tied to the open hostility to President Donald Trump. According to the Media Research Center, during President Trump’s first hundred days in office, 89 percent of network coverage of his presidency was negative. In the entire year of 2018, coverage was 90 percent negative, and during the impeachment hysteria, the media hit the ceiling with 100 percent negative coverage.

All this is worth considering when going back to the pushed-to-the-back-page story of the federal judge ruling on the constitutionality of Governor Wolf’s (and by extension, all the various state governors) ‘emergency’ powers related to COVID concerns. Suppose higher courts uphold this decision. In that case, this will totally upend the current practices shown by many state governors taken during the current virus and also redefine how these challenges will be dealt with in the future.

Even the very word ‘emergency’ is a misnomer, as these laws empowering Governor Wolf were designed to provide assistance in a serious, unexpected catastrophe, disaster, accident, plight, etc. Think of an emergency room or emergency meeting — it is something that needs dealt with because it is right here, right now. There is no sense of a future threat in the word ‘emergency.’ To use emergency authority that was designed to address floods, hurricanes, terrorist attacks, etc., and use it to prevent a possible pandemic is not an emergency but a precautionary action that should have been agreed upon with all aspects of government.

Yet even keeping the word “emergency,” Federal Judge William Stickman noted in his 67-page decision on September 14th, “The liberties protected by the Constitution are not fair-weather freedoms — in place when times are good but able to be cast aside in times of trouble. There is no question that this country has faced, and will face, emergencies of every sort. But the solution to a national crisis can never be permitted to supersede the commitment to individual liberty that stands as the foundation of the American experiment. The Constitution cannot accept the concept of a ‘new normal’ where people’s basic liberties can be subordinated to open-ended emergency mitigation measures. Rather, the Constitution sets certain lines that may not be crossed, even in an emergency. Actions taken by defendants crossed those lines. It is the duty of the court to declare those actions unconstitutional.”

Governor Wolf intends to appeal (of course), and this will now work its way up until it is finally settled by the US Supreme Court, which will be several years in the future. Looking back, history will note that the first shot across the bow was by Federal Judge William Stickman’s decision on Monday, September 14, 2020 — and the other ‘headline’ news of that day will have been long forgotten.

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