James Shott / January 22, 2019

Freedom of the Press: A Privilege to Be Honored by Practitioners

Freedom of the press is a hallmark of the American experiment. Looking back to the days when the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights were created, we can see what the Founders had in mind.

Freedom of the press is a hallmark of the American experiment. Looking back to the days when the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights were created, we can see what the Founders had in mind.

Thomas Jefferson believed that the press was to serve both intellectual and political liberty. One goal, he wrote, was to establish that “man may be governed by reason and truth.” And desiring that, all avenues of truth must be open to the people. “The most effectual hitherto found,” he said, “is the freedom of the press.”

To Jefferson, the press was charged with the solemn duty to provide the truth to the people so that they may be well informed.

Press freedom was thought so important that it was specifically provided with protections in the First Amendment.

Press freedom has risen to the fore since Donald Trump was elected president. His pugnacious attitude that so often produces testy responses to what he sees as press offenses has brought this issue into the news on a regular basis.

Members of the press and their allies see his criticisms of their work as attacking press freedom. But Trump’s allies agree with his position that some in the press have an anti-Trump bias that produces a steady stream of “fake news” and biased coverage.

Like Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin also championed press freedom, but did so while holding a realistic view of the real nature of the press. In 1789, in “An Account of the Supremest Court of Judicature in Pennsylvania, viz., The Court of the Press,” Franklin describes the operational environment of the press, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.

In the first section, entitled “Power of this Court,” he wrote: “It may receive and promulgate accusations of all kinds, against all persons and characters among the citizens of the State, and even against all inferior courts; and may judge, sentence, and condemn to infamy, not only private individuals, but public bodies, &c., with or without inquiry or hearing, at the court’s discretion” [emphasis in the original].

And who shall be eligible for membership in the Court? Well, “about one citizen in 500 who by education, or practice in scribbling, has acquired a tolerable stile as to grammar and construction… This 500th part of the citizens have the privilege of accusing and abusing the other 499 parts, at their pleasure.”

Unlike courts of law, the press is not controlled by a higher power, which enables the carryings-on of mischief and misfeasance if it decides to do so. It may use anonymous sources, which may or may not testify truthfully, since the press cannot impose nor need not fear fines or jail time. Mere accusations may be treated as absolute truth. Accusations may be made by anyone, against anyone, at any time.

Franklin wrote, “The accused is allowed no grand jury to judge of the truth of the accusation before it is publicly made, nor is the Name of the Accuser made known to him, nor has he an Opportunity of confronting the Witnesses against him; for they are kept in the dark, as in the Spanish Court of Inquisition.”

Whenever such misfeasance does occur, the press is protected by the freedom of the press guarantee of the First Amendment, and that protection is promptly and routinely called upon, as we have seen in the recent past.

The picture painted by Franklin is of a power with no limiting mechanism; it can do as it pleases without supervision, governed only by the integrity and adherence to ethical boundaries, which is completely voluntary for those working in the press.

Unfortunately, there is ample exercising of that ungoverned power in play today, the defense of which seems to be only that “Trump made me do it.”

Looking at the broad swath of professional misbehavior in the press, government, and elsewhere, one might well conclude that Donald Trump is the most powerful human being ever. He is able to compel people to willfully abandon their honor, their integrity, and their professional ethics, all because of their overpowering hatred for him.

Being a journalist is an important job. As Jefferson said, providing the truth is essential to the nation, and he named the press as the mechanism to do that. Being a good journalist is very demanding; it requires a very high degree of self-discipline to prevent journalists from allowing personal ideas and political positions to color their reporting. Sadly, many journalists have shown themselves unable to maintain that high level of personal performance.

Press bias is in ample supply and is easy to find, so long as the searcher is as objective in his search as the press is supposed to be in search of the truth.

Can journalism ever restore its reputation as a trustworthy element in America? It would be helpful if there were a penalty for straying from the straight and narrow.

It will be a long uphill journey. The sooner that journey begins, the better.

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