3-Minute Civics: How many voices does it take to make a ‘free press’?
By “press” the Founders literally meant the manual printing press. (Getty Images)
I am stunned by what the Russian people are not allowed to know about their war on Ukraine. Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new law criminalizing reporting that contradicts the government’s version of events.
That’s a far cry from the First Amendment to the American Constitution, which states the U.S. Congress “shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” The U.S. Supreme Court long ago decided that no governmental entities could abridge freedom of the press.
By “press” the Founders literally meant the manual printing press, which was the technological standard of the day. In simple terms, at the time it was written, the First Amendment meant that anyone with a printing press could print whatever drivel he or she wanted, and the voters could figure out who to believe.
A basic principle of constitutional law is that the remedy for bad speech is more speech – the more voices the better. Could our government indirectly abridge press freedom by enacting laws that have the effect of limiting the number of professional, news-oriented voices available to the voter?
Consider the argument of career journalist Brian Karem in “Free The Press: The Death of American Journalism and How to Revive It” (Prometheus Books, 2021). He argues that a steady stream of federal actions, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, have had the intentional effect of concentrating media power into the hands of CEOs who have no allegiance but to the bottom line. The result? Fewer professional journalists with their eyes on all levels of government.
“When your coverage is driven by what people want to see rather than what they need to see, then you’ve abandoned journalism for entertainment,” he writes. In other words, the fragile balance between independent journalism – entertainment’s less sexy cousin – and the capitalistic drive to increase profit has been lost.
Karem details a long list of governmental jabs at journalism over the last 40 years, including:
President Ronald Reagan’s deregulation of the media in the 1980s. The biggest casualty was the Fairness Doctrine: an FCC rule since 1949, mandating a nominal effort to present both sides of a story. Also lost were limits on the number of media outlets a single person could own, and guidelines for minimal amounts of non-entertainment programming and advertising.
“By deregulating the industry, Reagan allowed fewer owners to make greater decisions, ensuring a survival-of-the-richest scenario,” Karem writes.
President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, purportedly to “provide more information and more entertainment” but further enabled media consolidation. President Barack Obama repeatedly used the 1917 Espionage Act against the press as further assaults on the legitimate work of journalists.
You can argue all day that we do have millions of news voices on the Internet. My personal favorite is Dave Pell, “Managing Editor, Internet.” Each day he scans the internet and summarizes his top 10 stories.
But Dave and writers like him (much as we enjoy their diligence and wit) are no substitute for an independent institution with a mission to present the news voters need to know, and a budget to support the work of independent reporting.
In the 1980s, I was a general assignment reporter for the Salem Observer, and later the Carroll County correspondent for the Union Leader. Every event – from a municipal board meeting to a passing presidential candidate – brought a scrum of reporters to the scene. In Conway, in 1986, that meant five reporters from four newspapers and one radio station. We competed for the best angles on the most important stories.
Now, the Conway scrum typically includes one reporter, from one paper. No online news organizations have replaced the other media. We are lucky to have a reporter. Lots of places have no reporters covering their local government. Think about that.
Government pressure isn’t the only problem for news organizations, which are still struggling with the effects of the digital revolution. But government action against press freedom is a distinct problem.
What are possible solutions? Karem’s first choice would be aggressive governmental use of antitrust laws to bust up the giant media corporations. He also believes the growing trend of nonprofit journalism holds promise. Here in New Hampshire, we have at least three such entities: InDepthNH.org, New Hampshire Bulletin, and Granite State News Collaborative.
Meanwhile, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2021 is wending its way through Congress. Journalists warn that the way it regulates publishers and online platforms skews sharply in favor of media giants. Watch closely to understand what the effect of this act may be. Will it put more reporters in town halls across the country, or will it give media CEOs more arrows in their already bursting quivers?
Who owns your news sources, how are they funded, whom do they serve?
Three-Minute Civics is an occasional column that seeks to help the people of New Hampshire navigate the issues and debates taking place at every level of government.
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