Many journalists are fond of telling us how central they are to our democracy. Some cite Thomas Jefferson’s quote, “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.” These self-important boasts by journalists deserve to be challenged. Modern journalism is not only different from what Jefferson intended, it is almost completely the opposite in three fundamental ways: the role of the press, the voices that matter, and the importance of opinions.
1. The role of the press — Jefferson’s vision for the role of the press was completely integrated with his vision for the country. He believed that each of us is born with God-given rights that must not be taken away — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The potential thief he had in mind was government. Accordingly, he thought that the single most important role for newspapers was to serve as a “fence” to prevent government from encroaching on individual rights.
But modern journalism has hopped this fence by tending to side with the government establishment, often protecting it from people and corporations. Jon Ham notes that newspapers typically feature government as an enlightened class and make use of a “standard journalism template that the private sector has questionable motives, i.e., profit, whereas the public sector’s motives are pure, i.e., altruistic.” PBS’ Bill Moyers now tours the country lashing out against the dangers of too much corporate control over the news media, while singing the virtues of government-controlled NPR and PBS. This anti-corporate attitude has its roots in Marxist, not Jeffersonian thought. As ABC’s John Stossel points out, corporations do not have nearly the same power as government entities, which are “coercive monopolies that spend other people’s money taken by force.”
2. The voices that matter — Jefferson’s insistence on a Bill of Rights was also consistent with his vision for America. It reaffirmed the equal rights of all, and the First Amendment explicitly guaranteed to everyone freedom of expression to protect themselves from government encroachment on their rights.
But modern journalism has so confused us about the true meaning of “freedom of the press” that only a few outside of intellectually honest constitutional scholars can tell you what it really means. Despite all we have been taught, the phrase “freedom of the press” was not intended to highlight special freedoms of certain people known as “the press.” It refers to the freedom of all people to use the printing press. Just as the immediately preceding words grant all of us the right to speak our minds, these words grant each of us the right to publish what is on our minds. In his letters, Jefferson regularly referred to “free presses” — i.e., free use of printing presses. When the First Amendment was written, there 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.” It would be another 30 years before America had its first full-time reporter. Jefferson wanted newspapers filled with all of our voices, not just those who happen to make a living writing news.
3. The importance of opinions — What Jefferson really wanted in news was opinion and debate — a multitude of voices competing in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas. He wrote “nature has given to man no other means of sifting out the truth whether in religion, law or politics” than “the fair operation of attack and defense.” He himself threw his hat in the ring by founding his own highly partisan newspaper to attack Federalists like Alexander Hamilton.
Instead, modern journalism has attempted to create for itself a faux-scientific world, where facts are sacred, opinions are contaminants, and debate is a waste of time. Allegedly, their methods are “objective” and their content is a pure stream of verified truths. But, new media has taught us that mainstream media often do not get the story straight and regularly masquerade center-left opinion as singular truths. Journalists also strangely insist that the public has an incontestable “right to know” these “truths,” and tend to recklessly dismiss the sometimes real risks that their exposure might threaten the survival of our Jeffersonian government at the hands of enemies who do not protect individual rights.
Clearly, when Jefferson said he would prefer “newspapers without a government” to “government without newspapers,” he did not imagine a journalism that was favorably disposed to government and that presented only one view. No doubt, he would have preferred “bloggers without a government” even more.
Steve Boriss blogs at The Future of News. He works for Washington University in St. Louis, where he is Associate Director of the Center for the Application of Information Technology (CAIT) and teaches a class called “The Future of News.”