A Free Press Will Not Be Fair

The First Amendment to the US Constitution contains some of the most important safeguards for a free society.

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.

In addition to freedom of religion, the First Amendment protects from government action:

  • Freedom of speech and of the press
  • Freedom to peaceably assemble and petition the Government

The framers of the Constitution knew that to afford change in Government, it was essential that its citizens be able to speak freely and to assemble as they wished.

It is interesting that freedom of speech and the press are lumped together in the same phrase. They were obviously meant to go hand-in-hand.

We have a modern idea about what “the press” is. While I don’t care to engage in a discussion of the original meaning of “freedom of the press”, it seems clear that the printed word was meant to be protected, both as a speech and “press” freedom. Since the only plausible way to produce printed documents in any volume at the time was with a printing press, I rather think that the founders meant anything produced by a printing press. Considering its seminal role in the American Revolution, I suspect they were concerned about protecting the publication of such things as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.

Had they meant only to protect news outlets, I’m guessing they would have used the word “newspapers”, a term that was in use at the time.

The US Supreme Court has rejected claims that “journalists” deserve any protection beyond those available to ordinary folks. This is as it should be, especially in an era in which the spoken, printed, and visual word can be produced and distributed rather effortlessly and at much lower relative cost than when the Constitution was written. I agree with that decision. Why should employees of the New York Times deserve any special speech protections not afforded to me? What makes the New York Times “press” but not me?

Many express a longing for a press that is “fair and unbiased”. Perhaps we’re just fondly remembering the days of Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley, when broadcast journalism had a relatively widespread positive public perception.

Lest we forget, the Cronkite and Brinkley news shows were broadcast on publicly-owned airwaves that were highly regulated by the US government and funded by paid advertising. It’s hard to imagine that Cronkite or Brinkley would have presented anything as inflammatory as Common Sense.

Fair and unbiased, much like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Progressives believe that MSNBC coverage is fair and unbiased. Conservatives disagree. Conservatives believe that Fox News is fair and balanced. Progressives disagree. Since there is no independent arbiter of such things, we are left with the conclusion that both views must be correct.

As soon as we demand that some institution act in our behest, we give the authority for strangers to decide what is in our best interest. Fallible biased humans will be asked to make those determinations, much as the decision-makers at MSNBC and Fox News do every day. The difference is that there would be only one decision-maker - without the diversity that comes from multiple voices behaving in a free and diverse marketplace of ideas. 

News outlets have always been biased. All around the world and throughout time, people have been keenly aware of the political biases of newspapers and broadcast outlets. Bias in news is nothing new. It has a long tradition. It is a natural result of free speech. 

News media companies like to portray themselves as the guardians of democracy - the fourth estate. If they were ever held in such high esteem, it's certainly not true now (though Congress has a competitively lower approval rating). For example, there appears to be little if any connection between newspaper endorsements and voting results. For many of us, the press is little more than a platform for political advertising.

The reality is that "the press" is just another collection of entities engaged in a commercial marketplace. Their bills must be paid. We get it. No problem.

But, at least theoretically, we should be be able to weed out the good from the bad through our consumption choices. Why is it then that we seem so dissatisfied with what is being produced? Why are journalism held in such low regard?

In future blogs, I will explore some possibilities that we consumers of the press might want to do to try and bring about creative innovation and, yes, destruction to make this industry better serve us. We deserve better. 

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