When Jamie Frevele applied for her Fishternship, she went on record as having a strong affinity for cable news, and in particular “The Abrams Report” and its titular host. We, of course, were down with that. But Jamie takes the Abrams-love one step further and extends it warmly to groundbreaking First Amendment lawyer and Dan-father Floyd Abrams, whom she regards with great respect and affection. Early on she pitched me a review of “Speaking Freely: Trials of the First Amendment” with an eye to applying Abrams’ comments and history to the infamous and ever-evolving case of Judith Miller. She reads, watches, thinks and loves, sharing a few nuggets along the way.
Judy Miller is officially free to leave the media cycle. She has served her time, told her story, and won the Society of Professional Journalists’ First Amendment Award, calling for federal shield laws to protect journalists. Now, we all
know Miller’s reporting was controversial and, well, wrong. (Ed. – I prefer to use the more cautious word “dubious” – not unlike her memory). But in all the hullabaloo over Scooters and aspens and who one Valerie Flame might be, the original First Amendment question has been waylaid (Ed. Mickey Kaus blames that on Judy, too). Last night Aaron Brown interviewed Abrams for NewsNight (transcript here) wherein Abrams discussed his time serving as Miller’s lawyer, and the current backlash against Miller in the press. He lamented the “huge hits” she’s taken, reminding viewers that she’s “getting credit from some people to no credit at all” for serving the longest sentence by a reporter and for “fighting the fight” (Ed. We know the rebuttal issues, but let Floyd speak.) Most fundamentally, there is “no reference to the First Amendment anymore, as if that had nothing to do with anything.” Brown, interviewing Arianna Huffington afterward, brought up the fact that most liberals, like Huffington, would be standing up for Miller’s First Amendment rights had she been rooting for their cause. Huffington denied this, but Brown and Abrams are exactly right. (Sorry, Arianna.) The same First Amendment that gives Judy Miller freedom to protect her sources gave Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein the freedom to protect theirs during Watergate! Before that, the same First Amendment protected Daniel Ellsberg and the New York Times for respectively leaking and printing the Pentagon Papers. Agree or
disagree (vehemently) with Judy Miller, but the First Amendment
applies to the whole political spectrum. Sometimes you just have to
bite your lip and play fair.
Back in April, Floyd Abrams released “Speaking Freely: Trials of the First Amendment.” Despite the undesirable result of what would end up being 85 days of prison for Miller, Floyd Abrams said to the press after Miller was incarcerated in early July, “You have a very successful lawyer before you.”
Think “Very successful lawyer” is in the eye of the beholder? Think it might look a wee bit different from the Alexandria Detention Center? Read on after the jump!
And it’s true. Abrams recounts groundbreaking victories (and frustrating defeats) for freedom of expression and the press beginning with the Pentagon Papers case. In 1971, Abrams defended the New York Times’ right to print leaked documents describing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The coverage that followed swayed the country’s support for the war, eventually leading to our exit. I re-read this chapter after Mark Felt revealed himself as Deep Throat late this past spring, and in the current climate, vintage cases about printing information leaked from within the administration suddenly seemed quite timely. The Judy Miller case makes it all the more relevant.
Besides the humor (Abrams has a gift for sarcasm), the writing is rich and descriptive, making the “legalese” seem more like storytelling with a technical edge. He sets the scene of every case to put it in context, follows with the suspense of the trial, and finally, the verdict. If there is any one reason for why this book is so great, and for why Floyd Abrams is such an iconic lawyer, let it be the last sentence of his introduction: “The essence of the First Amendment, after all, is that we don’t all have to agree.”
Back in April, Floyd Abrams and his son, MSNBC’s Dan Abrams, held a discussion at the 92Y to promote the book’s release. Now, if I may digress, I don’t watch “The Abrams Report” for the insightful legal analysis alone. Dan Abrams is a handsome man. In person, distractingly so. As he introduced his father before the discussion, I silently begged him to sit in the chair facing away from me so I could pay his father my undivided attention. He heard me. Thanks, Dan.
Naturally, they talked about the Plame case, but what both Abrams men had to say about the current relationship between the White House and the press was eerie and disturbing, “1984”-like. Floyd Abrams described the Bush WH attitude as “contemptuous,” even more than the Nixon WH. He also spoke about how the White House is behaving more like a “burgeoning business,” searching for “comfier” ways to release information to the public via a more sympathetic (read: pandering) outlet. Dan added that there was decreasing objectivity in journalism as a result. On a July edition of his show, he predicted that if freedom of the press would continue to be disrupted by prosecutors such as Patrick Fitzgerald, reporters will be getting all their information from “press releases for companies and the government.” This is precisely what shield laws would prevent.
I can’t wait for the paperback — another father-son discussion touching upon Karl Rove, Scooter Libby and Mark Felt would be icing on the cake. I am positively giddy about how Floyd Abrams might compare the two situations.
In the end, I was fortunate enough to have my copy of “Speaking Freely” signed by its author, plus Dan Abrams took a really nice picture with me. Both gentlemen were very tolerant of the hugely nerdy unofficial cheerleader for all things Abrams. (That would be me. Because I actually own this shirt.) But that’s not why I would recommend this book; it’s helpful to remember that the hell breaking loose in the present was made possible by people “fighting the fight” in the past. That’s the Fishbowl Soapbox for now.