The Future of News: A Golden Age for Free Speech?

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Everyone knows that the First Amendment phrase "freedom of thepress" generally refers to journalists. But at the time the FirstAmendment was written, there were essentially no journalists as wethink of them now. Newspapers were produced mostly in one-man shopsby those whose trade was "printer" - not "reporter," "journalist,""columnist," or "editor." It would be another 30 years beforeAmerica had its first full-time reporter.

The truth is that just as the phrase "freedom of speech" grantsall of us the right to speak our minds, "freedom of the press"gives all of us the right to publish - to "freely use a printingpress." Thomas Jefferson had no interest in empowering a specialclass, "the press," who today present themselves as superior intheir abilities to ferret out, understand, and communicate thesingle, correct way to look at things. Instead, he wanted our newsto be filled with a multitude of alternative voices and opinionscompeting in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas.

Until the end of the 19th century, America had the newsJefferson wanted. He and James Madison launched their own highlyopinionated newspaper, critical of Alexander Hamilton and theFederalists. By late in the century, most metro daily papersclearly 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 nolonger offer a "multitude of voices." Instead, news stories andangles are remarkably similar across all news outlets. Actually,four things happened, all of them major advances, with unfortunateside effects:

First was the steam printing press. Although harnessing thepower of the steam engine to newspaper printing presses representeda great leap forward for Jefferson's vision at first, ultimately itwas a significant step backward. Cost reductions allowed manypapers to drop their price to as low as a penny, but only those with very largecirculations could achieve the efficiencies needed to lower theircosts. The total number of newspapers declined and in the end therewere fewer voices.

Next came broadcasting. It provided the public with no-costaccess to fresh news throughout the day, courtesy of advertisers.But ultimately, broadcasters could only offer a limited number ofvoices, each constrained in its political speech because of thefederal government's control of broadcasting frequencies throughassigned licenses. Only a handful of TV channels were allowed ineach local market, which in turn could support only a handful ofnational networks. Government insistence that broadcast licenseesmeet guidelines for "responsible programming" had a chilling effecton speech, as broadcasters recognized that their livelihooddepended on keeping politicians happy. Even today, broadcast offersfew voices, and all are relatively government friendly - a far cryfrom Jefferson's freewheeling marketplace of ideas.

The Associated Press started out innocently enough. New Yorkpapers formed this not-for-profit in part to get news from Europefaster. Knowing that American-bound ships from Europe arriveearlier in more easterly Halifax than in New York, the papersdispatched boats from nearby Boston to greet the ships there,collect European news, and then telegraph it to New York. Soon, thedark 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 agreementgiving Western Union exclusive rights to the AP's telegraphbusiness in exchange for higher telegraph fees for other newsproviders. AP bylaws essentially gave members veto power overadmission of new competitors in their circulation areas. E. W. Scripps, creator of the first chain ofnewspapers, said that the AP is a "monopoly pure and simple" thatmade it "impossible for any new paper to be started in any of thecities where there were AP members."

Finally, there was the movement to improve the accuracy,credibility, and professionalism of journalism. In the early 20thcentury, newspaper legend Walter Lippmann called upon thethen-discredited journalism profession to embrace scientific goalsand 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 theantithesis of what Jefferson wanted - a country with maximum freeexpression and debate, a multitude of voices in a freewheeling newsmarket.

The Internet is now poised to undo all the "advances" that setnews back. Having a voice in the marketplace of ideas no longerrequires capital investments in printing presses and broadcastequipment, 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 andNationalReview Online provide news and opinion from across thespectrum. New voices have undermined modern journalism's claims ofobjectivity and truth. High-profile failures, like the iconic DanRather's career-ending use of a forged document disparagingPresident Bush's Texas Air National Guard service, have contributedto the belief of a high two-thirds of Americans that news organizations tendto favor one side and to newspapers' low and declining believability ratings.

What might news look like in the future, where all have equalopportunity to join the marketplace of ideas? One clue comes fromthe United Kingdom - ironically, the nation we fought to secure ourfree speech. London's newspapers never bought into thevoice-suppressing concept of "objectivity." They still offer a fullspectrum of papers with alternative views, which are more enjoyablereading than America's dull fare. The online Guardian's goal isto become "the leading liberal voice," a refreshing salute to freespeech no matter where one falls on the political spectrum.

Also, look for new, alternative voices to liberate us fromnews's unhealthy obsession with the public sector. There will be anabundance of facts and opinion regarding our communities,lifestyles,vocations, and avocations.Free-speaking topic experts will emerge among the citizenry in allof these areas, often effectively challenging the consensus viewsof generalist, non-expert journalists and politicians.

Which leaves the issue of whether we will continue to allowgovernment to control our speech, a practice that began whengovernment seized the broadcast spectrum, issuing licenses only tobroadcasters who appeased politicians. The high price our democracypaid only became apparent recently when radio's Fairness Doctrinelapsed and relatively unregulated cable TV emerged.

We now have an opportunity to achieve historically unprecedentedlevels of free speech if we are vigilant in preventing governmentfrom regulating the Internet. So far, we seem far too eager to letgovernment in, for example on issues as small and theoretical as"Net Neutrality" regulation - a command-and-control regime for theInternet so much like the one still weighing down the broadcastspectrum.

Will we choose to be the greatest generation, giving governmentno foothold on the slippery slope leading to speech controls?Somewhere out there, Thomas Jefferson is watching.


Steve Boriss

Steve Boriss teaches the class "The Future of News" at Washington University in St. Louis, blogs at TheFutureOfNews.com, and offers services through The Future of News, Inc., to help organizations and agencies succeed in the emerging news environment To subscribe, or see a list of all previous TechKnowledge articles, visit www.cato.org/tech/tk-index.html.