News as it Was Meant to Be
The Lost Meaning of “Freedom of the Press”
Just how important to America is the news provided by journalists? So important, we are told, that the First Amendment even mentions journalists by name! It begins: “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;”
Did the founding fathers really believe that journalists were so important that they required special rights? Rights so critical that they needed to appear in one of the first phrases in the first section of the Bill of Rights?
This seems curious given that at the time the First Amendment was written, there essentially were no journalists as we think of them now. Newspapers were produced mostly in one-man shops by those whose trade was “printer” — not “reporter,” “journalist,” “columnist,” or “editor.” In fact, it would be another 30 years before America had its first full-time reporter.
Despite all we have been taught, and as difficult as it may be to believe, the phrase “freedom of the press” in fact was not intended to refer to the freedoms of certain people known as “the press.” It refers to the freedom of all people to use the printing press. Just as the Amendment’s immediately preceding words grant all of us the right to speak our minds, these words grant each of us the right as individuals to publish what is on our minds. In today’s world, it is equivalent to the right to post our thoughts on the Internet.
There are many ways to demonstrate that this was the Founding Fathers’ original intent, not least of which is that the Declaration of Independence makes it clear that all individuals should have equal rights, which would preclude journalists from having more. But, in no place is this clearer than in the following excerpt from a letter written by Jefferson to Noah Webster that predates, and also previews, the Bill of Rights:
“there are also certain fences which experience has proved peculiarly efficacious against wrong, and rarely obstructive of right, which yet the governing powers have ever shown a disposition to weaken and remove. Of the first kind, for instance, is freedom of religion; of the second, trial by jury, habeas corpus laws, free presses.”
Note the use of the phrase “free presses,” as in free use of printing press machines. “Presses” is not a word that would be used to refer to a body of journalists. The shortening of this phrase to “free press” contributes to our confusion today.
Jefferson’s Real Vision for News:
Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers did not intend to empower a special class of people known as “the press,” based on their superior ability to ferret-out, understand, and communicate the correct way to look at things. Instead, he wanted our news to be filled with a multitude of alternative voices and opinions, competing in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas.
Jefferson particularly wanted government to be vulnerable in a public battle of ideas. He hoped that the attacks of a multitude of opinions would hone its operation, as well as clarify the public’s will. In a letter to George Washington he said of government, “if virtuous, it need not fear the fair operation of attack and defense. Nature has given to man no other means of sifting out the truth whether in religion, law, or politics.”
America has strayed far from his vision for news. Jefferson might be puzzled by modern journalism’s mandate to sanctify facts over opinion, when the formation of individual opinion was exactly what he believed was required in America’s new form of government. In fact, to help mold public opinion in his own time, he and James Madison launched their own highly opinionated newspaper, critical of Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists. He would no doubt be discouraged by today’s prevalence of a single national conversation, in which most outlets seem to present the same news stories and angles.
In the next article, we will explore the surprising reasons that America moved away from Jefferson’s vision.