"the press?"

I was asked today, in reference to my post Civil Obeisance, this question; “If the Founders did not mean to grant a separate, and superior, category of free speech to “the press”, why is the press specifically mentioned in the First Amendment?”

I responded by asking what my questioner imagined was meant by “the press” to someone living in the 18th century? Did he imagine that, for example, Thomas Jefferson was so literal minded as to equate “the press” with ink made from lamp black and animal fat, impressed on crude paper in manually operated presses from type set by hand with individual letters of lead? Is that what made “the press” important? Or was there perhaps an underlying concept someone unfamiliar with the internet might be expressing?

Jefferson had much to say about a free press, most of it uncomplimentary. For example:

“It is so difficult to draw a clear line of separation between the abuse and the wholesome use of the press, that as yet we have found it better to trust the public judgment, rather than the magistrate, with the discrimination between truth and falsehood. And hitherto the public judgment has performed that office with wonderful correctness.” –Thomas Jefferson to M. Pictet, 1803. ME 10:356

“Since truth and reason have maintained their ground against false opinions in league with false facts, the press confined to truth needs no other legal restraint. The public judgment will correct false reasonings and opinions on a full hearing of all parties, and no other definite line can be drawn between the inestimable liberty of the press and its demoralizing licentiousness. If there be still improprieties which this rule would not restrain, its supplement must be sought in the censorship of public opinion.” –Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Inaugural Address, 1805. ME 3:381

“As for what is not true, you will always find abundance in the newspapers.” –Thomas Jefferson to Barnabas Bidwell, 1806. ME 11:118

“The press is impotent when it abandons itself to falsehood.” –Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Seymour, 1807.

“I deplore… the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them… These ordures are rapidly depraving the public taste and lessening its relish for sound food. As vehicles of information and a curb on our funtionaries, they have rendered themselves useless by forfeiting all title to belief… This has, in a great degree, been produced by the violence and malignity of party spirit.” –Thomas Jefferson to Walter Jones, 1814. ME 14:46

“These people [i.e., the printers] think they have a right to everything, however secret or sacred.” –Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1815. ME 14:345

“Advertisements… contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper.” –Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Macon, 1819. ME 15:179

Emphasis mine. Where does “public judgment” manifest itself most freely today?

Nonetheless, Jefferson would not have “the press” (in which he included, especially, book publishers) emasculated:

“Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” –Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1786.

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and 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. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” –Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787. ME 6:57

“I am persuaded that the good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army. They may be led astray for a moment, but will soon correct themselves. The people are the only censors of their governors, and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs through the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people.” –Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787.

“To preserve the freedom of the human mind… and freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will and speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.” Thomas Jefferson to William Green Munford, 1799.

“It is so difficult to draw a clear line of separation between the abuse and the wholesome use of the press, that as yet we have found it better to trust the public judgment, rather than the magistrate, with the discrimination between truth and falsehood. And hitherto the public judgment has performed that office with wonderful correctness.” –Thomas Jefferson to M. Pictet, 1803. ME 10:356

“The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.” –Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823. ME 15:491

Do you think Jefferson would have condemned or applauded free flowing information with “everyman” a publisher? Again, do you think that Jefferson was so literal minded a man as to have meant “ink on paper”, rather than “the ability to publish”? The exempt media would like you to believe the former to be the case. Many reasonable people don’t buy it.

Cliff Kincaid points out one reason the exempt media aren’t concerned about free speech restrictions under McCain-Feingold. Not only is their Gore not oxed at present, but congressional incumbents are rushing to bolster their own protection and that of the “exempt for-no-discernable-reason media”:

We cannot let the Big Media monopolize the concept of journalism. When we honored Harry MacDougald and Paul Boley with the Reed Irvine Investigative Journalism award, we were recognizing that ordinary citizens can be journalists, too.

…the sponsors of the so-called Free Flow of Information Act, or the federal media shield bill, do not understand this critical fact. In an October 10 article by Mark Fitzgerald on the Editor & Publisher website, he noted that Senator Richard Lugar, main sponsor of the shield law in the Senate, has said that bloggers would “probably not” be considered journalists under the bill. On the other hand, Rep. Mike Pence, the main sponsor of the bill in the House, says some bloggers will be covered, but only those involved in “gathering news.” He says those covered by the bill would have to be evaluated on a “blog-by-blog basis.”

…In the House, the bill only has 63 co-sponsors. But it also has the backing of powerful news organizations, which have concealed their role in lobbying for the bill from media consumers. In the Senate, there are only 10 sponsors. But it has already received two sympathetic hearings from Senator Arlen Specter of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In both cases, Specter refused to accept in person testimony from Accuracy in Media against the bill. He doesn’t want the truth about this dangerous bill to get out.

George Will offers a rationale for the exempt media’s silence about, and general support of, McCain-Feingold;

The speech rationers, a.k.a. the “reform community” – abetted by much of the unregulated mainstream media, which advocate regulating rivals – will redouble their efforts to clamp the government’s grip on the Internet, and require bloggers to hire lawyers.

Bring it on. I thought Campaign Finance Reform would by now have made such blatant lobbying by a special interest group impossible.

Will also calls the question on other political hacks’ support for CFR’s incumbent protection trappings:

In California, “progressive” thinking has progressed to the conclusion that because money in politics is bad, political competition is, too. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger advocated, unsuccessfully, having retired judges draw legislative districts in order to reduce gerrymandering and produce more competitive races. A group opposed to that argued that if districts were more competitive, “politicians would be forced to spend more money and become more dependent on special-interest money.”

If the congresscritters can pass a bill they can unpass it. If the First Amendment meant “ink on paper” the exempt media wouldn’t need the Free Flow of Information Act, which by the way apparently doesn’t cover bloggers. When “Campaign Finance Reform” comes to a water cooler near you, they’ll have had their cake and eaten yours, too.

Thomas Jefferson recognized that a free press was an important brake on government, even if it was sometimes pernicious. He did not recognize that “gathering the news” was the criterion to be applied by a free people to the ability to express an opinion.

There is more on this topic in earlier Other Club posts on this topic: