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“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.” – Thomas Jefferson. This expression of reliance upon a free and independent press as a necessary component of liberty not only found its way into our Constitution but has been a bulwark of our culture ever since. Yet today the freedom of the free press is faced with unprecedented challenges.
In 1786, to Dr. James Currie, Jefferson wrote: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost.” In 1808, in answer to an address, he wrote: “The liberty of speaking and writing guards our other liberties.” To General Washington, in 1792, he wrote: “No government ought to be without censors; and where the press is free, no one ever will.”
Of course the technology of today has brought us sources of information and means of expression that would have been unimagined in Jefferson’s day. Yet the principle remains intact and is in danger of equally unimaginable threats today.
Among the greatest restrictions on the ability of the people to gain access to the information they need to be the “censors” of government are media consolidation, government secrecy laws and sadly, the unwillingness of the general public to demand more of their information sources.
Media consolidation has two aspects: six corporate conglomerations now control more than 80% of the media sources in America; and those six conglomerates are no longer subject to any rule that they serve the public.
FCC chairman Kevin Martin has proposed action by that body on media ownership rules by next month. This comes after earlier attempts by the FCC to loosen the rules limiting ownership were rebuffed by the Federal courts. At several hearings around the nation the public spoke out loudly against further relaxation of these rules as not being in the public interest.
Fundamental to this issue is the fact that all radio and television stations broadcast over publicly owned airwaves. In granting a license to use these airwaves the public has a right to both impose conditions and insure that broadcasters serve the need of the public to be fully and fairly informed. The FCC has in recent years dramatically abdicated its role in this regard.
Local radio has nearly ceased to exist, being replaced by automated programming created by a centralized national system. The result is that in many smaller cities there is no local programming at all and consequently no means for local authorities to get word out to the public about disasters or other emergencies.
Of the national broadcast media, the consolidation is combined with over-commercialization so that there is no real objective news source available and we are limited to “newstainment” programs that feed us garbage. This is not a free and independent press of the kind Jefferson said we needed for democracy to survive. In fact, the interests of government and big media are so closely intertwined that for all practical purposes we have only that information the government wishes to give us.
Yes, there are exceptions and yes the internet has blossomed with new sources for information. But for the most part what we find on the internet is derivative news and information – lacking is the kind of investigative fact finding that only trained news organizations are likely to provide.
If national conglomerates control the newspapers, radio, television, cable and satellite services as well as a substantial portion of the web, there is not the kind of robust “censorship” of government Jefferson deemed essential to liberty.
A bipartisan effort is underway to bring all this to the attention of the FCC and hopefully it will help. But unless the FCC re-imposes the public service standards rules it scrapped in recent years, reverses the process of media consolidation and takes seriously the words of Thomas Jefferson, our nation will suffer greatly.
No better example can be brought to mind than the abject failure of the media to raise questions and slow the rush to war with the invasion of Iraq. We cannot afford more of such failures to question and investigate. Americans need to wake themselves from the deep sleep we are in and learn to read, ask questions and demand more from the not-so-free press of today.
It can begin by contacting your elected officials and demand that the FCC radically change direction.