⇠ Notes

Freedom of the Press Isn't About Journalism, It's About People

The Noble Myth: Criticism of News Media is an Assault on the Freedom of The Press

When facing criticism, a common rebuke used by the Press is that the accuser is attacking “a free press”. The operative word being ‘free’. What that criticism often is - pointing out inaccuracies, or items that are not fair to the subject - is entirely removed from the argument at hand, the freedom to publish. In fact, one can argue that the First Amendment’s clause citing a free press has just as much, if not more, to do with the critic’s freedom as the original publisher.

Journalists love this quote from Jefferson about free and fair press, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” I couldn’t agree more. But there are two huge problems with the contemporary use of the quote and similar lines of reasoning.

First, ‘newspapers’ in 1789 were not a distribution vehicle for the then-not-invented concept of 20th century journalism. Second, Jefferson wrote a litany of letters sharply critical of the Press, mostly from his later and post Presidency years.

Reporting as we think of it now was still far away. If those early newspapers did contain what we think of as contemporary news, it was almost always either reports from Europe that were sometimes months old or local news of a town’s doings.

With newfound access to the debates of Parliament, the act of reporting blossomed in late 18th century London. But, according to Mitchell Stephens’ History of News, it was not until the 1820s that it came to America. 1822 was the first year a reporter from outside Washington took up covering DC. And it wasn’t until almost 20 years later with the advent of the telegraph that, as Neil Postman puts it, ‘we had decontextualized news of the day’.

Impartiality, in the same flavor we’ve come to expect from our outlets, was alive in the early years of the Republic. There were high minded Federalist newspapers that sought impartiality, but they were not primarily gathering news, and quickly became the exception.

The Continental Congress and Original Colonies were not shy about the role they saw for the press in a new Union of States. In a 1774 address the Congress stated the freedom of the press promotes “truth, science, morality….[and] whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated into more honourable and just modes of conducting affairs.”

The Pennsylvania Declaration of rights stated “The people have a right to freedom of speech, and of writing, and publishing their sentiments, therefore, the freedom of the press ought not to be restrained” That verbiage implies strong sentiment for absolute freedom, as well as no special treatment to publish.

Perhaps most important in figuring out what was meant by ‘press freedom’ back then is how the two seminal cases regarding it set the tone for the issue in America.

In 1733 John Peter Zenger, printer and publisher of The New York Weekly Journal was arrested and imprisoned for eight months before surviving trial for criticizing the New York Royal Governor. His defense introduced an argument that would be used by future journalists accused of libel - truth. That it is not libelous if it is true. More importantly, the defense was adopted by the hearts and minds of American citizens.

69 years later Harry Croswell, the editor of an explicitly Federalist newspaper The WASP (opposed to the Democratic-Republican paper The Bee), was put on trial for asserting President Jefferson had paid James Callender to call George Washington “a traitor, a robber and a perjurer” as well as attacking John Adams.

After losing the case, Alexander Hamilton rose to his defense in an appeal heard by the NY Supreme Court. He argued that truth is a defense for libel, and Justice James Kent essentially agreed. The case was lost but the spirit of Kent’s opinion was codified in NY State’s laws, followed by PA, and eventually the soul of the American people.

The Alien & Sedition Acts, and the Sedition Act of 1918, both jailed political figures for their writings, not the modern interpretation of objective journalists.

The point of these examples is that our modern interpretation of the First Amendment regarding the Press is actually a product of political discourse, not modern reporting. Reporting is certainly covered, but the precedents and sentiment that set that tone are a byproduct of individual actors and publications, not card carrying members of a press corps.

To the second point. Jefferson well understood the role of a free press in principle, but he also despised them in practice. He understood what is true today, humans pay attention to news that is grandiose. His entire quote, often reduced to “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper” is worth reading:

“To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, “by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.” Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly deprive the nation of it's benefits, than is done by it's abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.

I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens, who, reading newspapers, live & die in the belief, that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time; whereas the accounts they have read in newspapers are just as true a history of any other period of the world as of the present, except that the real names of the day are affixed to their fables. General facts may indeed be collected from them, such as that Europe is now at war, that Bonaparte has been a successful warrior, that he has subjected a great portion of Europe to his will, &c., &c.; but no details can be relied on.

I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.”
- Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, June 11, 1807

The argument I make here is analogous, the importance of the freedom to publish cannot be understated. With that comes the right to critique what is being published.

In order to improve our society from the consequences of this Noble Myth, we must not limit the scope of press freedom, but expand it.

Think about it this way. Anonymity is taking this example to its furthest extreme. Yet some of the most important writing to appear within the pages of a newspaper was written anonymously. The Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers, which carried the weight of selling 13 states on banding together, were written under pseudonyms! Ben Franklin was famous for writing anonymously under pen names such as Silence Dogood, Richard Saunders, and Busy Body. How did this era of anonymous, non-journalistic, era of information turn out? I’d say we did alright.

It’s time to apply the same level of press freedom in practice to everyone, both in praise and critique.

Adapted from my Essay: The Narrative Distribution Monopoly

Journalists love this quote from Jefferson about free and fair press, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” I couldn’t agree more. But there are two huge problems with the contemporary use of the quote and similar lines of reasoning, as they butcher Jefferson’s intent.

First, ‘newspapers’ in 1789 were not a distribution vehicle for the then-not-invented concept of 20th century journalism. Second, Jefferson wrote a litany of letters sharply critical of the press, mostly from his later and post Presidency years.

Reporting as we think of it now was still far away. If those early newspapers did contain what we think of as modern news, it was almost always either reports from Europe that were sometimes months old or local news of a town’s doings.

With newfound access to the debates of Parliament, the act of reporting blossomed in late 18th century London. But, according to Mitchell Stephens’ History of News, it was not until the 1820s until it came to America. 1822 was the first year a reporter from outside Washington took up covering DC. And it wasn’t until almost 20 years later with the advent of the telegraph that, as Neil Postman puts it, ‘we had decontextualized news of the day’.

Impartiality, in the same flavor we’ve come to expect from our outlets, was alive in the early years of the Republic. There were high minded Federalist newspapers that sought impartiality, but they were not primarily gathering news, and quickly became the exception.

Deliberately, the Continental Congress and Original Colonies were not shy about the role they saw for the press in a new Union of States. In a 1774 address the Congress stated the freedom of the press promotes “truth, science, morality….[and] whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated into more honourable and just modes of conducting affairs.”

The Pennsylvania Declaration of rights stated “The people have a right to freedom of speech, and of writing, and publishing their sentiments, therefore, the freedom of the press ought not to be restrained” That verbiage implies strong sentiment for absolute freedom, as well as no special treatment to publish.

Perhaps most important in figuring out what was meant by ‘press freedom’ back then is how the two seminal cases set the tone for the issue in America.

In 1733 John Peter Zenger, printer and publisher of The New York Weekly Journal was arrested and imprisoned for eight months before surviving trial for criticizing the New York Royal Governor. His defense introduced an argument that would be used by future journalists accused of libel - truth. That it is not libelous if it is true. More importantly, the defense was adopted by the hearts and minds of American citizens.

69 years later Harry Croswell, the editor of an explicitly Federalist newspaper The WASP (opposed to the Democratic-Republican paper The Bee), was put on trial for asserting President Jefferson had paid James Callender to call George Washington “a traitor, a robber and a perjurer” as well as attacking John Adams.

After losing the case, Alexander Hamilton rose to his defense in an appeal heard by the NY Supreme Court. He argued that truth is a defense for libel, and Justice James Kent essentially agreed. The case was lost but the spirit of Kent’s opinion was codified in NY State’s laws, followed by PA, and eventually the soul of the American people.

This not to mention the Alien & Sedition Acts or the Sedition Act of 1918, both jailing political figures, not the modern interpretation of objective journalists.

The point of these examples is that our modern interpretation of the First Amendment regarding the press is actually a product of political discourse, not modern reporting. Reporting is certainly covered, but the precedents and sentiment that set that tone are a byproduct of individual actors and publications, not card carrying members of a press corps.

To the second point. Jefferson well understood the role of a free press in principle, but he also despised them in practice. He understood what is true today, humans pay attention to news that is grandiose. His entire quote, often reduced to “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper” is worth reading:

“To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, “by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.” Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly deprive the nation of it's benefits, than is done by it's abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.

I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens, who, reading newspapers, live & die in the belief, that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time; whereas the accounts they have read in newspapers are just as true a history of any other period of the world as of the present, except that the real names of the day are affixed to their fables. General facts may indeed be collected from them, such as that Europe is now at war, that Bonaparte has been a successful warrior, that he has subjected a great portion of Europe to his will, &c., &c.; but no details can be relied on.

I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.”
- Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, June 11, 1807

The argument I make here is analogous, the importance of the freedom to publish cannot be understated. With that comes the right to critique what is being published.

In order to improve our society from the consequences of this Noble Myth I want to hammer home the point here. It is not to limit our interpretation of the scope of press freedom, but rather to expand it.

Think about it this way. Anonymity is taking this example to its furthest extreme. Yet some of the most important writing to appear within the pages of a newspaper was written anonymously. The Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers, which carried the weight of selling a collection of 13 states into forming a Union, were written under pseudonyms! Ben Franklin was famous for writing anonymously under pen names such as Silence Dogood, Richard Saunders, and Busy Body. I posit, how did this era of anonymous, non-journalistic, era of information turn out? I’d say we did alright.

It’s time to apply the same level of press freedom in practice to everyone, both in praise and critique.

First published on July 7, 2020