Can the Free Press Be TOO “Free”?

Secretary Clinton Marks Global Press Freedom Day at U.S. Foreign Press Center via US Department of State via Flickr 

By: Will Thompson, guest blogger

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

-Amendment 1, Constitution of the United States

On the face of it, this seems like a perfectly inane question. “Don’t you know”, I can hear the response already, “that our ancestors fought and died to preserve this unique freedom we poses and to spread it, like Prometheus the Fire-giver, to those nations and people that were once plunged into the very depths of darkness but can now breath free again?”

Might I remind those who are bound to forget, that Prometheus was chained to a rock for eternity where the crows pecked at him, or in the words of Napoleon “Great men [and in my take, nations] are like meteors, which shine and consume themselves to enlighten the earth.”

Our Constitution and the men who have died protecting it, including my own ancestors, have indeed enlightened the earth. Over the past eight years alone, by our efforts hundreds of millions of people have been liberated from tyranny and their vicious jailers are now dead or running. The question then is, when the consumption and how? The when cannot be answered, only feeble conjecture can be offered forth. The ‘how’, however, is a place were some ground can be made.

Let us take our most recent national calamity, the Economic Crisis, as a micro chasm. How many out there, by a show of hands, would genuinely feel that the media, the cable news organizations, the papers, actually helped the situation rather than worsen the wound?

I thought so.

Don’t get me wrong, there were very sound reasons for an economic setback to occur with or without the media’s involvement, but I posit that the situation wouldn’t have been nearly as dire if the media had simply kept themselves quiet.

These collapses and catastrophes would have been contained by experienced and educated investors and managers who would have taken the steps necessary to stop the bleeding, take the loss necessary, and move forward.

Companies would be hurt, jobs would be lost, but the wholesale national panic that ensued when the prophets of cable news predicted the end of civilization wouldn’t have caused the exodus from the market by small investors, bank runs, the massive withdrawal of investments from large firms all of which led to investors of every size and scope being force to either withdraw or take catastrophic losses.

There were reasonable ways to solve the problem and all the media did was an action akin to causing a herd of cattle to stampede irrationally off of a cliff.

First Amendment Rally (Union Square, New York City) by Luke Redmond via Flickr

Can you blame them?

I can’t.

Competition between the myriad cable news stations, newspapers, Internet news, and so on is so intense that hysteria is the best method of income generation.

The more viewers the stations have, the more they are able to charge for their advertisements, and the best way in the short term to gain a vast audience is to scare the living daylights out of whomever happens to be watching at the time. Normally this cycle of blowing things out of proportion and over dramatization works perfectly fine, but this time it backfired. The hysteria they caused was so immense that they plunged the entire economy into a downward spiral. Now they’re making much, much less money than they did before.

What is needed here, in light of the fact that the media, the supposed fourth branch of government, the much-touted “watchdog” has worked against the best interests of the people it’s supposed to be fighting for?

A quick fix would be to enact laws that put strict controls on journalistic exaggeration and misrepresentation when it comes to certain key issues. Or perhaps we should re-institute the fairness doctrine that President Obama has advocated which would mandate that both sides of an issue be given absolutely equal time on any given station.

This way, there would be enough of a counterpoint to the chicken-littles that there would be some chance of sanity prevailing. No, both of these options are not only un-Constitutional, but also entirely repugnant to anyone who believes he has a God-given right to freedom of expression.Yet, something must be done.

Can we trust journalism to regulate itself?

Of course not.

When the New York Times reveals state secrets on its front page and nearly a year into this financial crisis, no one has even so much as mentioned the detrimental role the media played in egging on this collapse, I sincerely doubt the journalistic community apart from a few enterprising and upright individuals will have the intestinal fortitude or moral conviction to do anything aside from what they’ve always done. (I mean, look at how long it’s taken for them to adjust to the advent of the Internet and they’re still not there.)

Anonymous VS Scientology III - March 15, 2008 photo by Tanya N via Flickr.

So, if we can’t legislate it, and the community can’t be trusted to do it on their own, then we certainly can’t expect the business community to strike out at the media and demand responsibility in exchange for advertising dollars.

The private sector in this country is absolutely petrified of the media who will do endless hatchet jobs on nearly any industry simply due to their distaste for the success of free-enterprise and belief that no one has a right to make an income above a certain amount (which of course they get to arbitrarily decide).

Further, they have enough to deal with to stay in existence at all, what with the Obama administration mercilessly bullying banks and ousting CEO’s of private corporations which the government technically has no voting stock in. Each company no matter how successful they may be now, can only tremble in their boots and wonder if they will be next on the list of whole industries and companies that will become socialized or regulated and taxed out of existence.

No we can’t expect a herd of what amount to condemned men to do anything but work for their own survival.

The problem…and the solution…lie within us, the people of the United States and the people of the world.

We allow so many millions of people in this country alone to live in relative ignorance through lack of proper education, and millions of others due to their own apathy. Further, this apathy, not to risk sounding like an extremist locked up in a backwoods cabin, has only been exacerbated by the modern welfare state and the knowledge that whatever you make, half of it you won’t keep, and if you don’t make, you’re still provided for anyway.

Is this any way to run a country?

We allow ourselves to succumb to hysteria because we believe almost everything we hear, and consequently we only hear the first side of the debate, and don’t bother listening to the other. We are willing dupes who think with our feelings, come when called, and run when sent.

We don’t know any better, and in many of our cases, “Momma DID raise a fool”.

Beyond all conceivable measure we live among a lost generation, fallen not to the ravages of war and strife, but simply crushed and dissolved into absolute apathy and mediocrity beneath the weight of the very pillars our forefathers upheld and which the moral implosion of society has sent tumbling down again. They walk this earth, like Simon and Garfunkel sang; talking without speaking, hearing without listening, and if I may add my own words, thinking without knowing. The communal sentiment of our age has become something akin to “Eat, Drink, and be Merry for tomorrow we die.” What do such abstractions as God, Country, Family, and Society mean so long as we have enough to buy our toys, and our fancy meals?

They are nothing but impediments to our pleasure, which is after all, the chief end of man.

The problem of the Media, then, is not a problem at all.

It is a symptom of a greater weakness, the rotting and putrification of the human mind and the hardening of the human heart to any concerns aside from its own. A people like we are deserved to be viewed no differently than the media views us already; as numbers, warm bodies, wallets with legs attached.

Will Thompson has a Bachelor’s in Business Administration and is a current MBA candidate at the Univeristy of Miami. He is an entrepreneur, singer (opera and jazz) and creator of i-vÄ“ Magazine.