Just What is “the Press” and Why is it Free in America?

Everyone complains about “the press” in America – including me. Conservatives say journalists are too liberal; liberals say they’re too conservative – and so on.

Today “the press” is a vast, diverse mess on television and radio, on the Internet and in an overwhelming array of printed publications, a far cry from the days of Thomas Jefferson and the other fathers of the constitution. They wanted a free press because they held the idealistic notion that members of the press would speak from the heart and should not be shushed by the government.

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter,” Jefferson said early in his career. (But he lived to criticize the press later on.)

The American Constitution asserts that Congress shall make no law to abridge the freedom of the press. But it does not define “the press.”

So what is Congress supposed to leave unfettered? In practical terms, the free press means printed materials. The government regulates use of the airwaves and can control the behavior of broadcasters.

There used to be a regulation enforcing a “fairness doctrine” that obliged television stations to provide exposure to opposing sides of political issues. The regulation was removed long ago, but several “conservative” polemicists are warning that if the Democrats win control of Congress and the White House, they will reinstate it. This is perceived as a dire threat to such broadcasters as Rush Limbaugh.

I think the government is misguided when it attempts to set standards for the delivery of information by any medium. You can see the kind of thing that would result in those inane telecasts where the obligatory left-winger and the obligatory right-winger recite opposing sides of an issue. I learn nothing new from these puppet shows, and I am sure you don’t either.

But I see no reason for the people who call themselves journalists to be sacrosanct.

In many other countries, journalists are sanctioned by press councils made up of their peers. In America, this kind of professional oversight is the rule for doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, dentists – even Realtors. Why are other professions regarded as so vital to the welfare of society that oversight is considered prudent when journalism is not?

Especially now that “the media” is controlled by large corporations with a lot to lose or gain in the way “news” is disseminated, the public should have some way of telling professional journalists from propagandists. I am not suggesting that anyone who has not been sanctioned by a professional body should be banned from having their say. But it would be useful to have some way of checking the credentials of the people delivering information to the public.

If Mr. Limbaugh, for example, were to obtain journalistic credentials from a recognized professional body, I might be more inclined to take his comments seriously.