Everybody believes in freedom of the press. Even dictators say they believe in it – so they arrest outspoken critics and dissenters on completely unrelated charges, like tax evasion or corruption.
Likewise, nobody in the United States is against freedom of the press. All the pundits and politicians believe in the sanctity of the First Amendment. Yet they have little concern about the fact that the entire profession of journalism is hemorrhaging jobs, funding, and readers. It’s all about market forces, they say. Journalism simply doesn’t turn a profit. It doesn’t seem to occur to people that freedom of the press requires not only freedom – it also requires a press. In the long run, it doesn’t matter whether journalists are jailed or simply forced into other lines of work. The result is the same: ordinary people are deprived of daily information essential to their well-being and perhaps to their very survival. That’s what’s at stake here.
Maybe we should look a little more closely at this notion of press freedom, what it is, where it comes from, and where it’s headed.
What It’s Not
Though the idea of press freedom may strike us as simple, natural and inevitable, it is none of these things. “Freedom of the press” cannot be separated from democracy or nor, perhaps, from secularism. And all these ideas are products of the religious, political, and intellectual history of Western Europe and the United States.
Press freedom is a Western idea, but it has universal relevance. To claim otherwise would be like saying that only Ukrainians can enjoy Chicken Kiev.
Mass media begins in the 15th century with the invention of movable-type printing, a device that sparked a ferment of intellectual exchange which gave birth to the modern world as we know it. The press encouraged literacy, and literacy changed the way nations were governed. Printed material, because it could spread news so fast, created a new force in politics: the common people.
The printing press also proved critical to the emergence of Protestantism. Protestants were enjoined by their spiritual leaders to read the Bible, which made literacy (and numeracy) a duty.
John Milton Pleads Before Parliament
Accused of publishing unlicensed pamphlets, John Milton, future author of Paradise Lost, appeared before the English Parliament in 1644 to deliver what later became the essay Aeropagitica. Milton argued that different opinions, freely expressed, ought to be permitted because “opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.” Unfortunately, and illogically, Milton also advocated death for any person who expressed pro-Catholic sentiments. But Milton’s central argument for freedom of the press reverberated long after his personal prejudices were forgotten.
Repression in the Old Regime
The French authorities before the revolution took a dim view of unregulated public speech. In his play The Marriage of Figaro, Pierre Beaumarchais wrote, “They all tell me that if I mention neither the government, nor religion, nor morals, nor people in office, nor influential corporations, nor anyone who has anything to do with anything, I may print everything freely, subject to the approval of two or three censors.”
The Age of Reason
The thinkers of the 18th Century were exhilarated by Isaac Newton’s idea that nature is governed by certain fixed laws. Locke and Rousseau, among others, argued that rulers and ruled were bound together in a “social contract.” A citizen who broke the laws of the State deserved to be punished, but a government that trampled on its citizens’ rights broke a higher law and thus forfeited its legitimacy. Thus, it was generally granted that citizens should have the right to criticize the State without fear of retribution.
This attitude was best expressed by two journalists, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, who published their uncompromising “Cato Letters” in the London Journal between 1720 and 1723. There is “no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech,” they wrote, adding, “Only wicked governors of men dread what is said of them.”
Their message crossed the ocean and found a receptive audience among the free thinkers in the American colonies.
The Case of John Peter Zenger
One sensational trial laid the groundwork for press freedom in America. In 1733, opponents of the colonial governor of New York launched a newspaper called the New York Weekly. They persuaded a German immigrant named John Peter Zenger to accept the position of editor. When the paper published articles about administrative corruption, the furious governor had Zenger arrested and tried for libel. Though the governor picked the judges and disbarred two of Zenger’s lawyers, the jury rebelled and found Zenger innocent because he had told the truth. Since then, our courts accept truth as a defense against libel. The British legal system still refuses consider the truth or falsehood of an alleged libel – only the damage it caused.
The Press Makes a Revolution
The American Revolution was a revolution fired up by a very bold and belligerent press. The first spark was Stamp Act, passed by the English Parliament in 1765. The Stamp Act imposed a tax on all colonial commercial and legal papers, newspapers, and pamphlets. This incredibly stupid piece of legislation provided just the excuse needed by the radical press (which included Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams) to embark on a campaign of inflammatory anti-British rhetoric that proved successful beyond its wildest dreams.
In 1775, the colonies had 48 newspapers with all kinds of political viewpoints. Readers consumed them avidly, perhaps because they provided a common bond for a heterogeneous population of two and a half million sparsely settled over a vast area of land. In hindsight, we can say that colonial newspapers were instrumental in forging the American identity.
Some papers survived the Revolutionary War, some folded, and some new ones were launched in the midst of it. Most of the American press kept up a steady drumbeat of patriotic fervor that did not abate until the British surrendered. In a letter of January 16, 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The people are the only censors of their governors … [W]ere it left me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
This kind of attitude produced the First Amendment, which to this day remains one of the most sweeping freedom of expression laws ever written.
The American press at the time was far more aggressive and unbridled in its criticism of public officials than it is today. When George Washington left office, he groused that he was weary of being “buffeted … by infamous scribblers” and swore that he would never read another newspaper. In 1798, Congress, with the backing of the second President, John Adams, passed the so-called Alien and Sedition Acts, which provided penalties for those publishing any “false, scandalous and malicious writings” against the U.S. government. Several people were tried and convicted under this new law, which provoked widespread popular resentment.
The law expired at the end of Adams’ term in 1801. When Jefferson was inaugurated, he immediately released all prisoners still being held under its provisions.
Meanwhile, in France, Napoleon shut down all but a handful of the newspapers. “They only say what I wish,” Napoleon bragged. He established a Bureau of Public Opinion for the express purpose of managing domestic propaganda – the prototype of today’s Ministries of Information.
Modern ideas of freedom of expression are deeply influenced by the liberalism of John Stuart Mill, a 19th century thinker whose interests ranged from women’s suffrage to relief of the laboring poor. In his 1859 essay On Liberty, he argued that the truth can only be achieved through a process of criticism, opposition, and open discussion. Attempts to suppress error will ultimately lead to the suppression of all thought.
Which Brings Us to...
... the Internet.
After many centuries, we have finally established the principle that the media should be free of government control. But today the media is being shackled by economics – by “free market forces.” that tend to flatten all values to the bottom line.
Once upon a time, all media – newspapers, radio and TV – were centralized authorities that force-fed a passive, paying audience. The Internet, by contrast, is both interactive and cheap. Today, if you can borrow a laptop and find a Wi-Fi connection, you can drum up your own audience. You can even start a revolution. This is a very promising development. But the sheer number of blogs and websites has diverted attention and audience share from established news outlets, many of which have closed or have fallen into the hands of a diminishing number of mega-merged corporations.
Today, a lot of what passes for news is either driven by corporate interests or by the egos of untrained and unreliable bloggers. On all of the mass media, not just the Internet, you find invasive product placement, entertainment masquerading as news, advertising masquerading as entertainment, ranting, rumor-mongering, populist demagoguery, and skillful manipulation of public opinion – in short, our hard won freedom of the press being hollowed out from the inside.