The Fourth Estate

It is appalling that those now in power seek to undermine all confidence in the media in order, we must suppose, to then be able to inform us themselves about those things they think we need to know. This type of control over what we are privy to, coupled with the recent attempt to suggest that there are “alternatives” to the facts which determine the truth, are disquieting to say the least. A free people, as Thomas Jefferson insisted, require adequate information and the education necessary to separate facts from alternative facts.

And as a nation, we are slipping behind other developed countries in our commitment to an educated citizenry — which is essential to a democracy. But, despite this, we must be armed against any attempt to quiet criticism and stifle open debate which are the lifeblood of that type of government. Jefferson was, before all else, the defender of a free people in a free democracy, that freedom being predicated on a free press and a citizenry capable of reading and willing and able to discuss openly the issues of the day.

Accordingly, I thought it timely to return to some of the things that Jefferson said in this regard as we seem to be living in a period in which those in power would disarm us and render us ignorant of what it is they do and propose to do. A leader who brings his own audience with him to press conferences in order to hear their applause and who plans to expand the space in which the press corps meets to discuss the issues of the day in order, presumably, to allow room for his supporters and make it extremely difficult to hear those who object to what is being said, is a leader who would declare war on the exchange of free ideas and opinions and the open debate of decisions that will affect us all. This is not to be endured. It is antithetical to the fundamental principles on which this democracy were founded and they signal the death knell of this democracy if they are allowed to go unnoticed and unopposed.

Accordingly, I attach herewith some of the comments by Jefferson that speak to our present concerns:

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. The functionaries of every government have their propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.

“. . . truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate — errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

” . . . 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.”

It is true, of course, that once he became President Jefferson was less enamored of the press, but this is to be expected. No one likes to be criticized and as President Jefferson made some terrible blunders — reducing the army and navy at a time when Britain was once again rattling its saber, for example. But he was large enough in the end to realize that his personal objections to what the press had to say about him were less important than the freedom of that press to write what they regarded as pertinent truths. No one in the public eye can expect to have his or her every move applauded unless they stack the decks and silence opposition. But that is not to be tolerated in a free government where the Constitution guarantees the right of the media to tell the truth and deny “alternative facts.” We as citizens have a right to know just as the press has a right to express itself without censorship. Thus, we must hope that these rights are protected in the next four years during which time they will be severely tested and attempts will no doubt be made to deny their legitimacy.


The HuffPost story begins as follows:

The Obama administration woke up on Tuesday to another morning of scorching criticism about the Justice Department’s decision to secretly obtain months of Associated Press phone records.

The DOJ tracked the incoming and outgoing calls on more than 20 AP phone lines, as well as the home, office and cell phone lines for six individual journalists involved in writing a national security-related story about Yemen that the Obama administration did not want them to write.

While many of us who supported this president are dismayed by this story and its ramifications — given its open attack on the first amendment — there are those who will insist that the president is in no way connected with this sort of suppression. How could he be? He’s a liberal democrat, after all, and Democrats are champions of a free press. But the story goes on to point out that

[Buzzfeed editor Ben] Smith wrote that the nuclear nature of the probe could, in part, be traced back to Obama, who has made it a policy to aggressively go after leaks in a fashion not seen in any of his predecessors. Though the White House said it had nothing to do with the probe and referred reporters to the Justice Department, Smith wrote that it was not hard to see Obama’s hand in some way: Elements of this approach, Obama’s friends and foes agree, come from the top. Obama is personally obsessed with leaks, to the extent that his second chief of staff, Bill Daley, took as one of his central mandates a major and ill-fated plumbing expedition. Attorney General Eric Holder, who pressed the leak policy, is a trusted Obama insider.

This obsession with leaks and attempts to suppress the news is disquieting indeed. I must admit I found Obama’s first term as president unsettling, given his urge to make everyone happy and reach compromises that violated fundamental principles he embraced during his campaign. But I figured that when he gets a second term and doesn’t have to run again he will come out strong on the principles one identifies with liberal thinkers and politicians who aren’t simply holding a finger up to see which way the wind is blowing. But there he is with his finger up — and it appears to be his middle one and it is pointed at us!  The man doesn’t seem to know what a principle is and he is acting very much like a paranoid Richard Nixon or George W. Bush, saying one thing while he does another. Shades of Watergate and the invasion of Iraq clouded in lies in the name of “freedom.”

It was terribly disappointing, for example, to see that even though 91% of the people in this country wanted some sort of background checks on gun sales the man couldn’t wheedle the Senate into a vote to support gun control. Is he really that clueless, not to mention inept? He seems to be sleeping with corporations like Monsanto who are determined to ignore ethics completely in the name of higher profits. Moreover, he promised to close Guantanamo where prisoners at this writing are still on a hunger strike to draw attention to their inhumane plight. And while the drone attacks started under Bush, they have escalated under Obama to an alarming extent — and he refuses to “come clean” and appear before committees to explain what he is up to. His tendency toward secrecy and his inclination to resort of prevarication when confronted smacks of the very thing we all hoped we were getting way from with this president who promised to be open and honest. He does, indeed, appear to be a Republican in Democratic clothing, fearful of “the enemy” and devoted to increasing corporate profits. It’s one thing to be a closet Republican with his hand in corporate pockets (there are a number of them in Congress), but it is quite another to pretend that he is anything but. It’s the duplicity coupled with the growing lack of trust that causes the greatest concern. Just who is this man?

Free Press?

Dan Rather was fired from CBS Evening News because he was outspoken about then-President George W. Bush’s Air National Guard record. Rather then went to work for Mark Cuban’s H.D. Network where he brings occasional flashes of his old brilliance to major issues that are worthy of serious thought — like the joke that is the wall between Mexico and Texas to keep out the immigrants. He has now written a book which he is busy promoting and in a recent interview he defended his exposé of Bush’s shameful record with the National Guard;

Joining Piers Morgan for a live, face to face interview, the longtime “CBS Evening News” anchor and “60 Minutes” correspondent opened up about the much-scrutinized 2004 report on George W. Bush’s Air National Guard service record:

“We reported a true story. That’s the reason I’m no longer at CBS News,” revealed Rather. “Those who found the story uncomfortable for their partisan political purposes attacked us at what they knew to be the weakest point, which was the documents.”

I don’t care to deal with the question of whether or not Rather got the story straight about Bush’s “military” experience. What interests me here is the question of the restraints on those who report the news. We pride ourselves on our “free press,” but it may be a bit of a stretch when the President objects to something a reporter asks in a press conference and then has that reporter fired.

Thomas Jefferson was a fierce defender of free press, though when he became president he changed his tune somewhat, objecting to the way he himself was being treated in the press. Apparently when the shoe is on the other foot it hurts. Still, in his retirement in 1816 Jefferson wrote to his friend Charles Yancey, “The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man is able to read, all is safe.” Surely, Jefferson was right. A free nation requires a free press — and citizens who are literate. But if the President or any other government official can have a journalist fired for speaking his mind — or asking embarrassing questions — how free is the press, in fact?

Many years ago the Episcopal Bishop of Maryland told a group I was with that he was looking forward one day to reading an “unbiased history of the Civil War — written from the Southern point of view.” Indeed. There is no such thing as an “unbiased” history — or unbiased journalism for that matter. The Bishop knew that: he was having his little joke. Complete objectivity is an ideal that all journalists and historians should strive for but can never reach. There will always be bias and perspective as long as humans are involved.

We hear with annoying frequency that the press is “liberal,” despite the fact that wealthy corporations own much of the media and we know that wealthy corporations are hardly liberal. In addition, of course, there is “Fox News” which is nothing more or less than the right arm of the right-wing in this country. It is not possible for journalists to remain neutral on any social issue of importance, as noted. Newspaper men and women lean left and they lean right. The best we as readers can hope for is to read enough to get some semblance of balance between the two. But it is essential that the journalists be allowed to speak their mind — even if they want to castigate, or even applaud, the President. It is up to us to figure out whether or not what they say is worth reading. But when any official of this government, can silence the pen or mouth of any journalist whatever, there is need for concern. Jefferson was right: no nation can remain free without an informed citizenry. And that requires that all voices be heard.

Censoring Comics

This week’s “Doonesbury” deals with a young woman who visits an abortion clinic in Texas. The comic shows the young woman being grilled by a middle-aged man who has no medical background and an episode in which the doctor “by the power vested in [him] by the GOP base” probes the girl with a 10 inch “shaming rod” required by a new Texas law — an act which Trudeau rightly insists amounts to rape. The comic was preceded by considerable controversy which resulted in a large number of newspapers across the country deciding not to run the series. It is graphic and very pointed and one can understand the expressions of concern, if not the outrage. But the notion that a newspaper must withhold the comic in order to please a vocal minority is troubling. Indeed, censorship is troubling.

The criterion John Stuart Mill employs to limit government interference in the actions of individuals would seem to be the only sensible one to apply in cases of censorship. Mill insisted that as long as a person isn’t harming anyone else the government should leave them alone. By analogy, unless a comic (in this case) can be shown to harm someone, it should be left alone. That is a very generous notion, though somewhat unclear since the term “harm” is vague. Some cases are clear — cases of overt violence for example. But what about covert or potential violence? Or what about mental harm? Some would argue that a comic depicting a young woman attending an abortion clinic and being subjected to what many would characterize as brutal treatment by insensitive males amounts to mental harm to those who read the comic — either because she is attending an abortion clinic in the first place or because of the brutal treatment she receives once she is there.

But no matter how we define “harm” the fact remains that no one forces anyone to read the comic. And that seems to me to be the crux of the situation. If there were graphic pictures that might offend a significant number of citizens prominently displayed on the street corner, the case could be made for censorship on grounds of mental harm, perhaps. Something that one cannot help but see is a better candidate for censorship than a book, movie, or comic that one must go to and view on purpose. No one is forcing anyone to pick up the newspaper and read the comic. That would seem to make it impervious to Mill’s rule — or anyone else’s.

The major newspaper in Iowa, the Des Moines Register, was among those that decided not to run the comic. There was such hue and cry over the act (in Iowa!) that the paper ran an apology and decided to run the entire series in the Sunday edition of the paper. Now that shows courage, because it is almost guaranteed to raise an even louder hue and cry. But people have been forewarned and, again, they don’t have to read the paper on Sunday if they don’t want to. As long as seeing the offensive material is voluntary, it seems to me, it should be deemed safe from would-be censors.

One of the keys to a “free press” which we rightly prize in this country should be the license to print anything worthy of serious thought and consideration regardless of whether it offends some or even many. That’s one of the criteria of “free” in this case, i.e., not restricted by narrow-minded readers who would have the paper print only items that meet with their approval. The editors decide and, if necessary, they warn us and in the end we determine whether we want to see the “offensive” material and judge for ourselves. In this case, the “Doonesbury” series is brilliant and satirizes the recent laws in Texas in a fashion they richly deserve. That’s the cartoonist’s job and in this case (as in most) Trudeau has done it well. Reader beware!