FREEDOM OF THE PRESS
FREEDOM OF THE PRESS
by William H. Benson
June 7, 2000
Wednesday of this week, June 7th, is Freedom of the Press Day. Originally designated by the Inter-American Press Association, it is not a widely celebrated day, but the Founding Fathers understood that their new nation required a strong and independent press. James Madison put “freedom of the press” in the first amendment of the Bill Rights: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. . . . ” It is the press’s job to reveal the truth and, in so doing, to restrain the government’s reach for unwarranted powers.
As a result, government officials have, in the past, disliked, mistrusted, and even hated the press. Adalai Stevenson, the twice-defeated Presidential candidate during the 1950’s, said, “Newspaper editors are men who separate the wheat from the chaff, and then print the chaff.” Until the Nixon era, the media was extremely selective in the publicity it gave to presidential wrongdoing. Both Roosevelt and Kennedy had love affairs going on that were known to Washington journalists, but the truth was never revealed while they were President.
But it was Richard Nixon with his bristling ego and his verbal digs at the media that produced a backlash–the media struck back. The historian Paul Johnson wrote, “The anti-Nixon campaign, especially in the Washington Post and the New York Times, was continual, venomous, unscrupulous, inventive, and sometimes unlawful. . . . In the paranoid atmosphere generated by the media’s anti-Nixon vendetta, anything served as ammunition to hurl against the ‘enemy’.”
Even though Nixon initially knew nothing of the Plumbers breakin of the Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel on June 17, 1972, Ben Bradlee, editor at the Washington Post, put Watergate stories on his paper’s front page seventy-nine times during the 1972 election, seeking to make the Watergate burglary a major moral issue. Two years later Nixon was forced to resign. In a sense, the media toppled Nixon’s Presidency.
James Fenimore Cooper wrote: “If newspapers are useful in overthrowing tyrants, it is only to establish a tyranny of their own.”
And so, in turn, we look to the government to restrain the press’s power. For example, in 1978 the FCC ruled that George Carlin’s X-rated monlogue should not be aired on radio nor television during the day. “The Seven Dirty Words” case went to the Supreme Court, and they upheld the FCC’s ruling. The liberals flew into a rage, for they believed that George Carlin should be permitted to say whatever he wanted and whenever. But when self-administered restraint fails, we look to the courts, to the laws, and to the government for censorship. Once again, but in a different manner, it becomes a moral issue.
Today, the entertainment industry has unparalleled power to produce whatever and whenever. Fred Friendly, a former television executive said, “Television and movies make so much money at their very worst, why would they ever want to be their very best?’
A columnist wrote, “We are drowning our youngsters in violence, cynicism and sadism piped into the living room and even the nursery. The grandchildren of the kids who used to weep because the Little Match Girl froze to death now feel cheated if she isn’t slugged, raped, and thrown into a Bessemer converter.”
The historian, Barbara Tuchman wrote, “The cause of pornography is not the same as the cause of free speech. There is a difference.”