Written in August 2018
The myth in question is not that the Press is not free, nor that Freedom of the Press is not essential to our democratic republic, or any society that aspires to some meaningful measure of individual liberty. The myth is that the modern conceit of a free press has its roots in our constitution or the founding of our country. This myth is a self-serving misinterpretation that demonstrates just how illiterate our journalists are. it has been nurtured by the New York Times starting, I suspect, in the 1960s, but I cannot be sure.
To explain, we must explore how to read human language. Human language is not mechanical as is computer, machine, language; although human language is immensely powerful, it is at the same time quite fragile. If you study language and literature, you can gain from the experience of others no matter how remote they be, in time or space, even if you can never know them completely. If on the other hand, as is the practice today, you attack the written word to mine it for data, or to gain an advantage over the writer, you make yourself a fool, and contribute to the destruction of the language itself in the process.
The claim of present day journalists seems to be that they are a singularly privileged and powerful group, or class, based on the First Amendment’s guarantee of Freedom of the Press. That claim can be debunked by simply referring to a dictionary, and confirming what is to be found there, but the question can be raised: Why would I go to a dictionary? What alerts me to the probability that the claim is ill founded, not to say absurd? Why should I question an interpretation that benefits me? The answer is in how you should read a document, if you desire to learn from your effort.
First you should know what you are reading: What is the document? Who wrote it? Under what circumstances? For what purpose? A naive person would have an almost endless tree of ever increasing branches to the above questions, but an educated American should be equipped with some general knowledge and understanding that will inform, and shorten, the examination.
The First Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, which amends the United States Constitution. The Constitution was written and adopted to strengthen the young country founded on the principles of equality, liberty, and popular sovereignty, and to enshrine the principle of the accountability of all power to the people through their elected representatives. The Bill of Rights was added to detail some of the most important individual rights that arose from the revolutionary concept of the sovereignty of the people, rather than their rulers, which had always been the rule. The First Amendment deals with ideas and beliefs; the sine qua non of individual freedom. One side of the debate about the adoption of the Bill of Rights held that enumerating some rights would weaken or void others that were left off the list; the other side implicitly claimed that the very idea of plenary individual rights was so novel, so revolutionary, that some examples were needed, if only to show the seriousness and scope of such rights. In the event, the Bill of Rights was adopted, and the fears of its opponents were proved well founded, even thought the text itself warns against considering the list complete.
It follows, as night the day, that someone who claims that such a document assures them of a special privilege for their unaccountable group, should face almost insurmountable skepticism and doubt.
It is fashionable today to complain about the lack of objectivity of the corporate media, or about the lack of respect that such media is accorded. The theory, the assumption, seems to be that the founding fathers established, in a list of individual rights, an unelected group of men who they trusted to adhere selflessly to an impartial, objective, truth as a check on the rest of us. In other words, that by innuendo, or metaphor, they betrayed every principle they held, and undermined the project for which they had recently risked everything.
The founding of the United States of American stands four square against the proposition that men are angels and can be trusted unsupervised to operate in the national interest. It stands four square against the proposition that one group of people should have privilege over others. It stands four square against the proposition that any power, under the Constitution should be unaccountable to the electorate. The conception of a free press under discussion, incorporates each of those propositions, and consequently, is odious to that founding.
Armed with the assurance that this conception is untenable, someone who does not understand the plain language of the amendment will have recourse to scholarship about what the language meant, at the time is was written, to those who wrote and adopted it. We have incorporated the metaphor that aligns the practitioners of the trade of journalist with the machine or organization that was their medium; thus “the gentlemen of the press” was shortened to “the press”, but it was not always so; most significantly it was not so when the Constitution was being debated and adopted. So it is inconceivable that the founders referred to journalists when they enshrined “the Freedom of the Press” in the amendment. A quick reference to Black’s Law Dictionary, moreover, reveals that in those days, and before, and since, Freedom of the Press was a term of art, referring to the right to use a printing press–and by extension other advanced technology–to disseminate whatever words and ideas you fancied without prior restraint, or censorship. It was, and remains, an individual right, and thus well-suited to the purpose of the Bill of Rights, and while not utterly absolute, covered all sorts of unpopular, and shocking utterances.
The endless carping about how biased, and unfair, and partisan the mewlings of journalists are can be elided by accepting that they should be thus; the error, the cancer on our polity, is to assume that they should be otherwise. The Bill of Rights does not, sub rosa, seek to establish the Ministry of Truth so desired by some, be it for political power or for personal aggrandizement; the Bill of Rights, on the contrary establishes a raucous free for all, a free market of ideas where all can express themselves, and employ, and contract such means as are necessary to amplify their voice in the public sphere. In this we are different from other societies.
If you could return to 1789 to ask Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, or any of the others if they envisioned a priesthood of unelected “journalists” sitting in judgement over the discourse of the nation (picture Jim Acosta, Joy Reid, Keith Olberman, Don Lemon, Nicole or Chris Wallace, or Joe Scarborough) I am confident that they would discretely, to avoid shaming your relatives, have had you committed to an insane asylum. There is absolutely nothing to indicate that they believed that such a thing was achievable, nor desirable. If after explaining to them our public space, you asked them which embodied the meaning of Freedom of the Press, as they understood it, the New York Times, with all its pretentiousness, or the blogosphere, they would have no hesitation in choosing the latter, marveling on how it empowered the individual where power should reside.
NOTE: It is not uninteresting that most of the heroes of reporting are not members of large corporations, or associations, but lonely voices crying out from isolation and oppression.