Everyone knows that the First Amendment phrase “freedom of the press” generally refers to journalists. But at the time the First Amendment was written, there were essentially 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.
The truth is that just as the phrase “freedom of speech” grants all of us the right to speak our minds, “freedom of the press” gives all of us the right to publish - to “freely use a printing press.” Thomas Jefferson had no interest in empowering a special class, “the press,” who today present themselves as superior in their abilities to ferret out, understand, and communicate the single, 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.
Until the end of the 19th century, America had the news Jefferson wanted. He and James Madison launched their own highly opinionated newspaper, critical of Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists. By late in the century, most metro daily papers clearly identified themselves as either Democratic or Republican, not just on their editorial pages, but throughout.
But since then, something has gone wrong. Our news outlets no longer offer a “multitude of voices.” Instead, news stories and angles are remarkably similar across all news outlets. Actually, four things happened, all of them major advances, with unfortunate side effects:
First was the steam printing press. Although harnessing the power of the steam engine to newspaper printing presses represented a great leap forward for Jefferson’s vision at first, ultimately it was a significant step backward. Cost reductions allowed many papers to drop their price to as low as a penny, but only those with very large circulations could achieve the efficiencies needed to lower their costs. The total number of newspapers declined and in the end there were fewer voices.
Next came broadcasting. It provided the public with no-cost access to fresh news throughout the day, courtesy of advertisers. But ultimately, broadcasters could only offer a limited number of voices, each constrained in its political speech because of the federal government’s control of broadcasting frequencies through assigned licenses. Only a handful of TV channels were allowed in each local market, which in turn could support only a handful of national networks. Government insistence that broadcast licensees meet guidelines for “responsible programming” had a chilling effect on speech, as broadcasters recognized that their livelihood depended on keeping politicians happy. Even today, broadcast offers few voices, and all are relatively government friendly - a far cry from Jefferson’s freewheeling marketplace of ideas.
The Associated Press started out innocently enough. New York papers formed this not-for-profit in part to get news from Europe faster. Knowing that American-bound ships from Europe arrive earlier in more easterly Halifax than in New York, the papers dispatched boats from nearby Boston to greet the ships there, collect European news, and then telegraph it to New York. Soon, the dark side of this collaboration among would-be competitors emerged, ultimately leading to fewer newspapers and fewer voices. Competition was first stifled when AP papers signed an agreement giving Western Union exclusive rights to the AP’s telegraph business in exchange for higher telegraph fees for other news providers. AP bylaws essentially gave members veto power over admission of new competitors in their circulation areas. E. W. Scripps, creator of the first chain of newspapers, said that the AP is a “monopoly pure and simple” that made it “impossible for any new paper to be started in any of the cities where there were AP members.”
Finally, there was the movement to improve the accuracy, credibility, and professionalism of journalism. In the early 20th century, newspaper legend Walter Lippmann called upon the then-discredited journalism profession to embrace scientific goals and procedures. Journalists were to pursue the “truth” and “true” solutions in public policy through the use of “objective” methods. But the idea of stories presented as singular truths is the antithesis of what Jefferson wanted - a country with maximum free expression and debate, a multitude of voices in a freewheeling news market.
The Internet is now poised to undo all the “advances” that set news back. Having a voice in the marketplace of ideas no longer requires capital investments in printing presses and broadcast equipment, just an Internet connection and a free blogging service, like WordPress. Multitudes of new channels can circumvent the monolithic, center-left voice of the AP network - websites like Daily Kos and National Review Online provide news and opinion from across the spectrum. New voices have undermined modern journalism’s claims of objectivity and truth. High-profile failures, like the iconic Dan Rather’s career-ending use of a forged document disparaging President Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service, have contributed to the belief of a high two-thirds of Americans that news organizations tend to favor one side and to newspapers’ low and declining believability ratings.
What might news look like in the future, where all have equal opportunity to join the marketplace of ideas? One clue comes from the United Kingdom - ironically, the nation we fought to secure our free speech. London’s newspapers never bought into the voice-suppressing concept of “objectivity.” They still offer a full spectrum of papers with alternative views, which are more enjoyable reading than America’s dull fare. The online Guardian’s goal is to become “the leading liberal voice,” a refreshing salute to free speech no matter where one falls on the political spectrum.
Also, look for new, alternative voices to liberate us from news’s unhealthy obsession with the public sector. There will be an abundance of facts and opinion regarding our communities, lifestyles, vocations, and avocations. Free-speaking topic experts will emerge among the citizenry in all of these areas, often effectively challenging the consensus views of generalist, non-expert journalists and politicians.
Which leaves the issue of whether we will continue to allow government to control our speech, a practice that began when government seized the broadcast spectrum, issuing licenses only to broadcasters who appeased politicians. The high price our democracy paid only became apparent recently when radio’s Fairness Doctrine lapsed and relatively unregulated cable TV emerged.
We now have an opportunity to achieve historically unprecedented levels of free speech if we are vigilant in preventing government from regulating the Internet. So far, we seem far too eager to let government in, for example on issues as small and theoretical as “Net Neutrality” regulation - a command-and-control regime for the Internet so much like the one still weighing down the broadcast spectrum.
Will we choose to be the greatest generation, giving government no foothold on the slippery slope leading to speech controls? Somewhere out there, Thomas Jefferson is watching.