A Free Press

Well the press these days is pretty free…..with the facts, with news more salacious than informative, with infotainment rather than information….I could probably keep going, but I’ll spare you the sarcasm for a moment, dear Reader, and get to my point.

“Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of every thing, and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press. It has accordingly been decided by the practice of the States, that it is better to leave a few of its noxious branches to their luxuriant growth, than, by pruning them away, to injure the vigour of those yielding the proper fruits. And can the wisdom of this policy be doubted by any who reflect that to the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression; who reflect that to the same beneficent source the United States owe much of the lights which conducted them to the ranks of a free and independent nation, and which have improved their political system into a shape so auspicious to their happiness?”

~ James Madison, Report on the Virginia Resolutions, January 1800


The founders highly valued the freedom of speech, and accordingly, the freedom of the press.  And why not?  The colonial American press had been a great contributor to the cause of freedom.  The works published by many of the founding fathers during the Revolutionary era were the seeds of liberty that took hold in the people’s minds and eventually sprouted into the tree of free government.  Even one of the most notable founding fathers and minds of the era, Benjamin Franklin, earned his livelihood as a printer.  The unfettered freedom of the press had served the Revolutionary generation well, and so they enshrined its protections in the Constitution.  They hoped that by doing so, the press would continue to print ideas from everyone and everywhere, and thus continue its role in helping to maintain liberty.  To look at the state of the press now, we’ve only demonstrated how far one can fall.  When was the last time you read anything from any major news source and felt like you were getting unbiased reporting where the issue was fact-based, or all possible sides to a story if the issue was opinion-based?  I can’t readily remember a time when that was the case, and my memory is pretty long.  In fact, the best pieces I’ve seen in recent years on anything going on in America (especially politics) have been from foreign news sources.  Go figure.  We may have freedom of the press, but our press is not a free one.

So what’s different?  Well, nearly everything.  In the Revolutionary era, there was pretty much someone to print anything.  What this meant was that instead of hearing only a trickle of voices day in and day out over major news conglomerates that own TV stations, newspapers, and websites, the founders’ generation heard from a flood of different sources.  The press of Washington and Jefferson and Madison was both independent and free.  So free that they got very rowdy, and borderline libelous, and at one point very early on, the federal government attempted to limit their freedom (despite the whole enshrined-in-the-Constitution thing).  It was called the Alien and Sedition Acts.  Collectively, they were four bills that Congress passed in 1798 in response to the aftermath of the French Revolution, and the spillover the chaos in France caused to its relationship with the new United States.  The first three had to do with naturalization and resident aliens, the last with the press publishing any “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government.  Somewhat ironically, despite the resulting furor over their passage, one of these laws still remains even to this day, as 50 U.S.C. §§ 21-24.  But the above quote from James Madison is a response to the last law, as the early federal government over-stretched its authority and attempted to rein in the press of their day.  Thankfully, these laws mostly went out of business, and the freedom of the press was preserved.

The modern press is certainly no less rowdy.  If the Alien and Sedition Acts were still law, we could no doubt indite every single news agency for violating them.  But as Madison pointed out, that part’s not really important when there are other members of the press who continue to push forward with presenting facts, unbiased information, and informative opinions from all sides.  Except no one does this anymore.  Nearly all the small press sources were bought up or edged out decades ago, and we hear only from a few large voices who dominate our news coverage.  And not a single one of these large news groups provides total coverage of events or issues, nor do they particularly concern themselves with making sure they are presenting all of the facts.  They slant the news and they edit it down into bite-sized portions for the lackluster minds of the American citizenry to absorb and then spit back out.  Our modern press no longer abuses its proper role, it has traded it in and chosen instead to become the lackeys of powerful parties and powerful people.  They’ve turned freedom of the press into a joke.  But the joke is on the American people, because without a truly free and unfettered press sounding with a huge cacophony of voices, the rest of our freedoms start to die as well.  Without information and real knowledge and a real exchange of ideas (all of which is the press’ real function), we have no hope of keeping the tree of liberty alive.  Once, the press helped to plant that tree, but now they only hack away at it bit by bit.

Res Publica

Documentation without Representation:

James Madison’s Report on the Virginia Resolutions, digital version courtesy of University of Chicago


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