Democracy and the Press

03 July 2010

Freedom of the Press was important to the Founding Fathers; it’s right there in the first amendment.

        Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Still, the founding fathers had a lot of ideas.  They weren’t all good.  Two that have turned out bad are the second amendment and the U.S. Senate.  The second amendment gives people the right to own and even carry into Starbuck’s weapons that can allow them to kill me at a great distance, with no warning.  Doesn’t do much for my sense of liberty, much less my sense of safety.  The anti-democratic institution of the Senate means that I, as a Californian, have considerable less say about American government than the citizens of any other state, about 1/70th as much say about the makeup of the Senate as citizens in Alaska or Wyoming.  Other really bad ideas, like countenancing slavery and not letting women vote or hold office, have been eliminated through war and amendment.  But these two bad ones, at least, remain.

So the fact that the Founding Fathers liked freedom of the press isn’t a terribly persuasive argument that it is a good idea.  One might think that freedom of the press, in an age of the internet and corporate owned newspapers is about as practical as unrestricted access to guns, in an age of automatic weapons.  Freedom of the Press needs to be defended philosophically, not by the authority of the founding fathers.

The philosophical basis for freedom of the press, especially in a (more or less) democratic state like our own, is that people are the ultimate decision makers, decisions are likely to be better if founded on truth than falsity, and truth is most likely to be available and widely believed with an unfettered press.

But does that really provide an argument for a press that can try criminals on Nancy Grace’s television show and in the tabloids, and so interfere with the right to a fair trial in front of impartial jurors?  Would the sorts of restrictions that other countries, like Britain, impose on reporting of crimes before trials really undermine the democratic process?

How about a press that can report on the intimate details of person’s private life, hiring reporter-detectives to trail public figures and report on their affairs?  Would democracy suffer if we didn’t know everything there was to know about Tiger Woods pecadillos?  Or his pecado importantes, for that matter.  Well, you might respond, that may be so, but isn’t it important for the electorate to know about John Edwards affair?  Well, is it?  Would we had been better off if we had known about John Kennedy’s private life in 1960?  Then Nixon might have won.  Well, actually, come to think of it, it might have been better to get Nixon out of the way then.  Historical counterfactuals are a bear.  But that’s another show.

Perhaps it's important to distinguish freedom of the press from freedom of speech.  Glenn Beck ought to have the right to stand on a street corner and spout nonsense.  But would it be so far-feteched to argue that people ought to have some basic qualifications before being given the power of a national television show?  Lawyers are policed by their own profession; they have to have a degree and pass the bar to practice.  Given the low esteem lawyers seem to have among the public these days, that might not be such a good point.  Still we have regulations about dentists and doctors, we have accrediting of universities that affect eligibility for government support, we have regulations about the medicines and drugs that one can peddle.  Doctors have to take an oath and have the requisite degrees.  Is it crazy to suppose that at least some journalists, the ones with access to the public airwaves, the ones that work for the large and influential newspapers and cable broadcasting operations, have some minimal accreditation?  Some education?  Some oath to tell the truth?  The government rates steaks.  Why can’t they rate journalists?  I’d give John Stewart and Rachel Maddow and the sainted Eward R. Murrow prime ratings.   Glenn Beck the equivalent of fit for dogs.  I don’t know where I would Keith Oblermann.  We need a category like nourishing but pompous, I guess.

Our self-assigned calling on Philosophy Talk is to question everything.  The freedom of the press is pretty sacrosanct, no doubt for pretty good reasons.  But I’ve done my best.

Comments (12)


Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, April 21, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

"The government rates steaks. Why can't they rate

"The government rates steaks. Why can't they rate journalists?"
At the very least the comparison with the legal profession breaks down here, right? Because lawyers rate, accredit, lawyers. Why can't, or don't, journalists rate journalists? That might be an even more important question. Glenn Beck would never pass a journalistic bar exam designed by and administered by journalists.
The government rating journalists might be more like criminals rating lawyers than the government rating steaks.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, April 22, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I don't know that the Senate is such a bad idea. I

I don't know that the Senate is such a bad idea. In fact, I think it might have been a little prescient for the Founding Fathers to come up with a system that allowed for popular will to be counted in the House of Representatives, but also ensured that there was a place at the table for states without major cities or dense populations.
In my mind, the biggest mistake immortalized by the US Constitution is our electoral system. Their ideal of Madisonian democracy, where illiterate farmers voted for the smartest guy in town, who went to the Electoral College to nominate candidates for President, from whom the House would then elect a President, completely failed to foresee how the process could be usurped by political parties and has failed just as miserably in reforming itself to stay with the times.
Sorry, I just wanted to say that. I promise my next point will be more relevant to the issue of freedom of the press.

Michael's picture

Michael

Thursday, April 22, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Passing judgment on the competence of lawyers is r

Passing judgment on the competence of lawyers is relatively easy, except at the level of the Supreme Court (where public policy is often determined). The criteria for judging journalists would be far more subjective, though basic accuracy in reporting would be a minimal standard for them all (thereby excluding the "journalists" who repeated the inflammatory nonsense about "death panels" in the healthcare reform bill).
But formal regulation of the profession would have an unacceptable chilling effect on free expression. Thanks to the internet, the statements and claims of journalists are subject to broader public review and criticism. As Justice Brandeis wrote in 1927: "If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."
[And finally, the Senate is a horrid antidemocratic anachronism, made even worse by the filibuster, but I won't elaborate on the reasons given by John.]

Michael's picture

Michael

Sunday, July 4, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

John writes about "a press that can try criminals

John writes about "a press that can try criminals on Nancy Grace?s television show and in the tabloids, and so interfere with the right to a fair trial in front of impartial jurors?"
Sounds like John has already tried them and found them to be "criminals"...
But the data supports John's choice of words, since the vast majority (~90%) of defendants in criminal cases plead guilty or are found guilty at trial. In the public's eye, there's a deep presumption of guilt that press coverage tends to strongly reinforce despite the ubiquity of "alleged" and similar disclaimers.
The British model is an unacceptable intrusion of government into free expression. The only real antidote to the problem John raises is screening potential jurors to minimize the effects of pretrial publicity. It's a challenge that can sometimes be insurmountable: it's hard to imagine how a court could impanel an impartial jury if Osama bin Laden is ever caught and brought to trial in the U.S.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, July 10, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

At 18:05 in response to John's question: ALL OF TH

At 18:05 in response to John's question: ALL OF THE ABOVE. This is the most important broadcast ever done, considering the Political, Social, and economic environment of late; however, I find it interesting that you three are not willing to go so far in your inferences to discuss the Illuminati and other Occult propaganda interwoven in all media. For example, it is no mystery that Walt Disney was a 33rd Degree Freemason. No problem there. Now, however, Disney corporations, as Griffith states, own G.E..
So they get rich off War, but don't they also benefit from subliminal messaging, and behavior placement within, say a cartoon? Psychologists are used in advertising paradigms, no mystery there.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cp5ebIhF57s&feature=related

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, August 14, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Your criticism of the Second Amendment is based on

Your criticism of the Second Amendment is based on factually inaccurate information. There is no parity between the number of legal firearms in a community and increased murder rate. To the contrary, the they are inversely proportional.
http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/493636.html
http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/jan/21/guns-decrease-murder-rates/
http://biggovernment.com/jlott/2010/03/01/more-guns-less-crime/
The Founding Fathers had a much deeper grasp of what they were doing than you appear to have in your critique.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, November 29, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

if you start with an untrue assumption, can your c

if you start with an untrue assumption, can your conclusion be reliable?
america is not a democracy, by design. consequently, freedom of the press is merely a convenience for press owners.
in a democracy, the sovereign people would demand and defend the right to information, and so extend to all individuals the privilege of free expression. this is counterfactual to reality in america.
the privilege of gun ownership was extended to the people of the usa so that they could resist the impositions of government. it has utterly failed in that end, for resistance begins in the mind, and the american mind is cowed. owning a gun makes some cows feel less impotent, allow them this tawdry sense of worth.

Fred Griswold's picture

Fred Griswold

Saturday, April 28, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Are there any American news

Are there any American news sources where freedom of the press really works the way it ought to? Where the only bias is in favor of how important the news is? The bias is clearly conservative at the Fox henhouse. At CNN the bias is in favor of kittens caught up in trees. They've been so intimidated by the neo-cons that they can't really report the news any more. The bias at MSNBC and Current TV is liberal in what news they have there, it's really mostly talk shows. The PBS New Hour, for its part, seems to be biased against people like Chomsky. The studiously avoid the likes of him and Glenn Greenwald and Medea Benjamin. Places like KPFA, on the other hand, have a pacifist bias. I don't personally know of a single American news source that can really be counted on to give it to you straight. Most of this can be accounted for by the profit motive, like Leslie Griffith said, starting 30 years ago or so. I guess we can blame it mostly on the quick, hot buck. I do know one foreign source that seems to do a pretty good job, namely Deutsche Welle in Germany. But they seem to be government-supported.

MJA's picture

MJA

Sunday, April 29, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

For me freedom of the press

For me freedom of the press means knowing when to shut it off,
And that is most of the time.
=

MJA's picture

MJA

Monday, April 30, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

...as for gun ownership: the

...as for gun ownership: the world would be a better place without them.
And the Senate: who needs or wants to be governed at all?
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, April 30, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Freedom of the press means

Freedom of the press means that one can proffer one's opinions through any medium without government retribution. Of course the rich will create and, thus, have access to the larger media. However, we are not guaranteed equal access, merely unfettered access. As one who has partaken of and created his own pieces of alternative media through the decades, I have no problem with this arrangement per se. When the government messes with my right and ability to do that, then it is a big deal.
As things stand these days, our problem is more one of reliability than access. 500-channel TV was sold to us as a way to promote diversity and access to other views. In fact, what it seems to have accomplished is simply to provide a station which reenforces the reality one already believes, enabling a person to never have to move out of his or her comfort zone. The internet takes that to the nth degree, allowing the truly bizarre to hook up with the like minded and convince themselves they are a mass movement.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, May 4, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Steve has hit it on the head.

Steve has hit it on the head. What the ever-increasing multiplicity of outlets gives us is more and more opportunities to indulge our biases.
Leslie Griffith's argument sounds to me very much like the conspiracy theories neo-cons and others throw around all the time. The "corporations" are colluding, the "corporations" are doing this or that, the big bad "they" is out there manipulating everything. Horse manure. Competing corporations can't get together on anything. And by her own standards, a JOURNALIST (as opposed to a "presenter") has to have EVIDENCE - so where is hers?
The truth is, a completely unbiased journalism, owned by those without biases or agendas (to use Leslie's standards) has never existed, nor will it ever exist. The press in the time of the founding fathers was vicious, slanderous, and often based intentionally on lies, and owned by vested political and commercial interests. And so it goes ever since. The idea of objective journalism seeking only the truth is a very recent ideal, not a reality.
Freedom of the Press is an aspect of freedom of speach. It means that people can publish what they believe to be the truth, as well as publishing their own opinions, without government hindrance. As Steve points out, it is about access. And we have that, as much as we've ever had it. Say what you like, the Bush administration wasn't hauling disagreeable reporters off to jail. The fact that the (American) press was so unquestioning about things like the Iraq war is the fault of that press, not of the administration, which simply did the best sales job of its position as it could, as any administration always does. I was stationed in Germany at the time - the European press was not taken in at all.
As long as we want all the modern high-tech instant capabilities we get in modern news media, we will have corporate ownership of media outlets - there is no other way to fund it aside from government control, which would be worse. As long as that corporate ownership is not all just one corporation (and it is not), and it does not block access for all others (and it does not), then we have a Free Press.

 
 
 

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