May 24, 2004

READER MIKE BRANOM writes with a question about something I said in this post:

And here's a question: Freedom of the press, as it exists today (and didn't exist, really, until the 1960s) is unlikely to survive if a majority -- or even a large and angry minority -- of Americans comes to conclude that the press is untrustworthy and unpatriotic. How far are we from that point?

He says it "sounds dangerous." Well, it is. I'd planned to write a longer essay on this, but since plans like that often fail to bear fruit, here's the short version.

Press freedom as we know it today is a rather recent innovation. The First Amendment didn't really do much work until just before World War Two. In World War One, people were convicted of sedition for publishing things that wouldn't raise an eyebrow today. Libel suits were easier, and in general the press enjoyed much less of a special status. (For a good history, especially of the World War One and Civil War eras, read this article by Geoffrey Stone).

And it wasn't really until the 1960s and 1970s, after cases like Brandenburg v. Ohio, and the Pentagon Papers case, that what we think of as press freedom today came into existence.

So the question is, is that a coincidence -- did the United States just happen to make progress in free expression over that period -- or is that expansion of press freedom tied to the fact that regard for the press, and in particular its fairness and objectivity, was (rightly or wrongly) at unusually high levels by historical standards during those decades?

And, either way, what happens if the public comes to regard the press as untrustworthy and un-American? Will the First Amendment continue to be regarded expansively? Maybe. Maybe not. And if you look at the various journalistic scandals, from Jayson Blair to fake Iraq photos, and at polls like these, coupled with others showing decreased respect for journalists, and reduced viewership and readership for major media outlets, the risk seems genuine.

Press freedom is in the Constitution, but so are a lot of rights that don't get nearly as much actual protection out in the world. Members of the press have often warned business people that malfeasance and self-serving behavior puts capitalism at risk. Malfeasance and self-serving behavior by the press puts free expression at risk, too.

UPDATE: Chicago Report, responding to this post, suggests that growing ideological diversity in the media may be an answer to this concern. Maybe (though we've got some distance to go on that front). But I'm not so sure. The media were far more diverse, and openly partisan, a hundred years ago, and press freedom was less revered. I don't know that there's a connection, but to the extent that people think of newspapers and TV news as being more like unpaid political advertising than like journalism, it's hard for me to see that outcome producing more respect for press freedom.

If anything saves free expression, I think it will be the expansion of personal publishing (blogs, web video, etc.) over the next few years, which may lead a lot of people to think of the press as "us" rather than "them." That, of course, will lead to more diversity, too. And, I suppose, it's another reason why the establishment press should embrace the media explosion.