Ask a professor: Robert Miraldi discusses First Amendment challenges in the age of digital and social media

Dr. Robert Miraldi, professor emeritus of Journalism at SUNY-New Paltz.

Not long after the election of Donald Trump, the influential punk rocker-turned-writer and activist Henry Rollins famously declared to his fellow punks, “This is not a time to be dismayed; this is punk rock time. This is what Joe Strummer trained you for.” A few years later, I sit in a booth in the noisy Plaza Diner in New Paltz, interviewing my former colleague/supervisor Dr. Robert Miraldi, professor emeritus of Journalism at SUNY-New Paltz. Along with professor Howard Good, Miraldi turned what was an orphan course offering or two within a traditional English Department into a legitimate concentration, then a major, then its own thriving department offering interdisciplinary synergies with broadcasting, public relations and eventually digital media. In the process, the pair groomed and accredited several generations of working journalists trained in both the challenges and opportunities of new media and the evergreen techniques of hard-nosed reporting.

We have met to talk about the unprecedented journalistic conditions of the Trump Age, in which the press finds itself demonized, discredited and (often literally) attacked, and in which the epistemological foundations of fact and truth have been undermined and eroded for political purposes and by political and corporate interests. Meantime, digital media have created all kinds of new sources, opportunities and venues for journalists, who, in the podcast and oral history age, enjoy latitude for opinion and personal identity as never before. And no one really gets paid much for any of it. New media companies still appear to work in spacious, urban, open-plan offices, but it is a stock Getty image. Everyone’s actually holed up in a bedroom somewhere drinking Monster. It is not hard to imagine a newbie reporter trembling at the gate of this brave (and economically grim) new world. To that neophyte I say, “Be not dismayed; this is what Miraldi trained you for.”

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A little history: When Miraldi and I met, circa 1989, I was a young writing teacher badly miscast as a computer lab director and technical auxiliary to the burgeoning Journalism program. I think I got the job because, sometime around 1987, I had begun submitting word-processed graduate research papers. And in those days that meant that – duh – I was probably proficient in mainframe computing and in the newly emerging world of desktop publishing. Stood to reason, right? By the same illogic, corporations in the ’90s gleefully paid upwards of $100,000 for a branded screensaver. It was all black magic to them. We eventually sorted that out, thankfully. I was put to better and more germane use in the English Department, and Rob and Howie got the resources they needed as well.

What stuck with me vividly, however, was the fire-and-ice relationship of these two close friends and program-building colleagues, Miraldi and Good. Brilliant writers, teachers and scholars both, they made a study in fruitful contrast and complement. Howie, a publishing poet these days who politely declined to participate in this nostalgia piece, was a meta-journalist and critic, author of a series of lively academic books about American press history and its relationship with film and literature. Rob Miraldi earned his stripes as a driven, muckraking reporter on Staten Island, one who exposed what turned out to be nationally significant cases of corruption and cover-up in his own community. As he transitioned to academia, he developed a (now ultra-timely) theoretical and practical expertise in First Amendment issues.

Miraldi is a heavy cat. His 2013 biography Scoop Artist: Seymour Hersch was the recipient of the Ann Sperber Biography Award for the best journalism biography in the US in 2013. His 2003 book, The Pen Is Mightier: The Muckraking Life of Charles Edward Russell, was published by Palgrave/St. Martin’s Press and named the best book in the country in journalism and mass media by Kappa Tau Alpha, the national college honor society. His first book, Muckraking and Objectivity: Journalism’s Colliding Traditions argued for a new flexibility for reporters that would allow them to advance progressive causes without being stifled by journalism’s often-rigid rules of neutrality. Starting before his retirement, he began his wildly popular and still-running syndicated columns on First Amendment issues.

Back to the diner now, and some hard-nosed American journalism for you: Coffee sloshes, china and silverware clank. A shared plate with at least eight halves of dry wheat toast is spun in front of us. A music critic, I am thinking that the recording I am soon to transcribe is going to sound like some weird prose version of Bill Evans’ 1961 classic Sunday at the Village Vanguard, in which the most quietly revolutionary trio in jazz history played over the ambient bed of a working and not-exactly-attentive club. Fittingly, Miraldi, like the great Evans, is quick on his feet, responsive and fine-tuned in his thinking and surprisingly non-doctrinal and unpredictable in his takes.

“Social media” was in full swing by the time you retired as a teacher and trainer of journalists – these kind of accidental or engineered aggregators of news, targeted content, organically generated opinion and blunt, scientific campaigns of behavior manipulation like the ones Cambridge Analytica boasted about to shareholders. What a mess, in an age when the foundations of fact are already under siege!

I’m pretty active on Facebook and Instagram, and they’re such different models. On Facebook, I feel guilty on a big news day to put up a picture of my dinner or of my grandchildren. I should be commenting on the impeachment hearings. That’s why I like Instagram: I can post my amateur photography, pictures of my garden. Instagram is rarely political.

But it’s problematic. The big issue with Facebook is regulation. Could you regulate it? Would it work? Would it even be permissible under the First Amendment? I think not. You can’t really regulate content unless it is a threat to national security, and in some other fairly limited cases, so I don’t think it is possible. Howie [Good] suggested this a long time ago, and I’ve really come on board with this: voluntary regulation. Zuckerberg and company have to take it on that they’re not just neutral carriers of information, that they are gatekeepers, and they have to do what gatekeepers have always done: They have to make choices and decisions. Whether they produce their own content or simply carefully look at the content they carry, that’s two different questions. If they went into the news business to actually produce (as opposed to carry) content, that would present other dangers, because they are so large; but, short of that, they need to do what gatekeepers do: make choices on their content. And they are moving more and more towards that.

Even Google is moving towards that with the whole concept of the “right to be forgotten.” If there’s something out there that you did 10 years ago that you would like see taken down, because there’s just no argument now for it to continue to be carried, right now Google wouldn’t touch it; but in Europe, “right to be forgotten” laws are becoming commonplace. If that happened, Google would have to make choices. You couldn’t force them to do anything because of the First Amendment, but you could put enough pressure on them so they say, “We’re going to have a panel to listen to John Burdick’s request that that thing he did 15 years ago be taken down.”

I didn’t do it.

You’d be problematic because you’ve had a public life, so its harder to argue that that stuff shouldn’t be out there.

What stuff? I didn’t do it. The digital media and the world of data-driven marketing seem to create a new challenge to the First Amendment daily. Your syndicated First Amendment columns have a frontline feel; we need someone with your fluid, experienced and critical sense of these moving boundaries of free speech. You’ve taken on spam callers, Internet porn and of course an array of topics related to the current administration and its warlike behavior regarding the press. I don’t think any of your former students would have thought you’d have gone gentle into that the good night, but you seem to be fighting and flailing harder than ever, and with quite a large audience.

Gannett picked up some of my stuff, and it appears in different places around the country, which I like, because, quite honestly, I think some of the things I am writing about, no one is talking about. The pornography thing is a hidden public health crisis. I’m not a prude by any means, and not necessarily opposed to sexuality in that form; it is just that we don’t contextualize it at all for young people, because you can’t even teach sex education, let alone teach sexuality, so there are a lot of questions about what this is doing to people.

The telephone scammer was interesting. I don’t like the column to be driven by my own quirks and anger, but the phone calls – you know, I still have a landline: “Nothing is wrong, but we’re calling about your credit card…” The First Amendment question there is: When someone comes into your house, do they have the right to talk to you? They have the right to knock on your door and the right to proselytize, but they don’t have the right to open your door and come in, which is essentially what the phone callers are doing, so it is an interesting First Amendment question.

Miraldi during his reporting days

How did that old First Amendment, the one that guarantees freedom of speech, become the focus of your intellectual life?

When I moved from practicing journalism into academia, before I had a PhD, I went to work for two years at St. John’s University. As a young professor, I could certainly teach how to do journalism, but they needed someone to teach a class called Regulation of the Media. I said, “What’s that mean?” They said, “That’s our First Amendment class.” So I plowed into teaching that class, and then took two graduate classes on freedom of speech, and suddenly I found myself passionate about the whole matter: ins and outs or privacy, copyright and many practical matters – but in the end, nothing matters if you can’t speak! The free press is at the heart of a functioning democracy. So, for 30 years my signature course was my Freedom of Speech and First Amendment class. It has really been central to my whole career.

And now you’ve been writing your award-winning First Amendment columns for 11 years, in two runs with a break in the middle to finish your Seymour Hersch biography. The issues confronting journalists and, indeed, the First Amendment today are not entirely unprecedented. You frequently discuss how there have always been fierce partisanship and attempts to control and influence press. But today the political uses of division and partisanship seem to have won, frankly. We can’t even define what a fact is anymore in a meaningful way. If you were still training journalists, how would you address the conditions of the day?

We need to address established, reliable fact. You know that fact is going to be disputed by the left and the right, and that’s always been the case. But we still need reliable fact. But since we’re going online and going on television and going on podcasts, we’ve increasingly reached the stage where a reporter gives me the facts, but then she’s being interviewed on a podcast and someone says, “Well what do you think about those facts?” And she weighs in. That’s always been limiting to a journalist, that you can’t ever weigh in. You get a journalist behind the scenes and you say, “What was really going on there?” and they tell you! But they couldn’t write it. Never give up on fact. Fact is important. You don’t want to start with your opinion. Get knowledgeable first. But now you can have an opinion. We’ve loosened up on that, and I think that’s probably a good thing.

I’m a glass-half-full guy. If I were back in the trade, I think I would be very excited about the possibilities of investigative reporting because so much is available online, so many ways to get a message out.

Okay, but what about the sense of all your facts being disputed, all your potential agency blunted by this discourse of division and flat denial? Would you be discouraged by that as you were also inspired by the new possibilities?

All politics is local. I was community journalist on Staten Island. I was instrumental in closing down this big state facility. It set a national trend of looking at institutions throughout the whole country. And we were able to put together something called the Staten Island Greenbelt, 5,000 acres of protected parkland. These had nothing to do with the terms of national debate. So, if you want to tackle issues and problems, to me, journalism still has that potential. Working at the national level is a different matter, but someday, when the history is written, what the New York Post, New York Times, the Washington Post and even the Wall Street Journal have done during this period, revealing what has taken place behind the scenes – we’re going to look at the whole package of it as the press doing what it is meant to do. I think the press has served us nobly.

For more on Dr. Robert Miraldi, visit https://scoopartistthebook.com.