The Blog: Cogito Ergo Blogo
Democracy and the Press
posted by John Perry
Freedom of the Press was important to the Founding Fathers; it’s right there in the first amendment.
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.
Still, the founding fathers had a lot of ideas. They weren’t all good. Two that have turned out bad are the second amendment and the U.S. Senate. The second amendment gives people the right to own and even carry into Starbuck’s weapons that can allow them to kill me at a great distance, with no warning. Doesn’t do much for my sense of liberty, much less my sense of safety. The anti-democratic institution of the Senate means that I, as a Californian, have considerable less say about American government than the citizens of any other state, about 1/70th as much say about the makeup of the Senate as citizens in Alaska or Wyoming. Other really bad ideas, like countenancing slavery and not letting women vote or hold office, have been eliminated through war and amendment. But these two bad ones, at least, remain.
So the fact that the Founding Fathers liked freedom of the press isn’t a terribly persuasive argument that it is a good idea. One might think that freedom of the press, in an age of the internet and corporate owned newspapers is about as practical as unrestricted access to guns, in an age of automatic weapons. Freedom of the Press needs to be defended philosophically, not by the authority of the founding fathers.
The philosophical basis for freedom of the press, especially in a (more or less) democratic state like our own, is that people are the ultimate decision makers, decisions are likely to be better if founded on truth than falsity, and truth is most likely to be available and widely believed with an unfettered press.
But does that really provide an argument for a press that can try criminals on Nancy Grace’s television show and in the tabloids, and so interfere with the right to a fair trial in front of impartial jurors? Would the sorts of restrictions that other countries, like Britain, impose on reporting of crimes before trials really undermine the democratic process?
How about a press that can report on the intimate details of person’s private life, hiring reporter-detectives to trail public figures and report on their affairs? Would democracy suffer if we didn’t know everything there was to know about Tiger Woods pecadillos? Or his pecado importantes, for that matter. Well, you might respond, that may be so, but isn’t it important for the electorate to know about John Edwards affair? Well, is it? Would we had been better off if we had known about John Kennedy’s private life in 1960? Then Nixon might have won. Well, actually, come to think of it, it might have been better to get Nixon out of the way then. Historical counterfactuals are a bear. But that’s another show.
Perhaps it's important to distinguish freedom of the press from freedom of speech. Glenn Beck ought to have the right to stand on a street corner and spout nonsense. But would it be so far-feteched to argue that people ought to have some basic qualifications before being given the power of a national television show? Lawyers are policed by their own profession; they have to have a degree and pass the bar to practice. Given the low esteem lawyers seem to have among the public these days, that might not be such a good point. Still we have regulations about dentists and doctors, we have accrediting of universities that affect eligibility for government support, we have regulations about the medicines and drugs that one can peddle. Doctors have to take an oath and have the requisite degrees. Is it crazy to suppose that at least some journalists, the ones with access to the public airwaves, the ones that work for the large and influential newspapers and cable broadcasting operations, have some minimal accreditation? Some education? Some oath to tell the truth? The government rates steaks. Why can’t they rate journalists? I’d give John Stewart and Rachel Maddow and the sainted Eward R. Murrow prime ratings. Glenn Beck the equivalent of fit for dogs. I don’t know where I would Keith Oblermann. We need a category like nourishing but pompous, I guess.
Our self-assigned calling on Philosophy Talk is to question everything. The freedom of the press is pretty sacrosanct, no doubt for pretty good reasons. But I’ve done my best.
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