The Commandeering of Press Freedom

Imagine for a moment the following faux conversation between a political master strategist and his operative.

From: [The Operative] To: [Guru Strategist] Mr.[redacted],  Our multi-year, diversionary bait-and-switch tactic has proven effective. The launch of Project Q was, above all, the masterstroke. Key columnunists at the Post and Times have shown exceptionally useful, particularly due to their rapid acceptance of the message. We have gained a great advantage insofar as a majority of dissent may be categorized as Q. The linchpin was as you foretold: a matter of proximity. To the extent compelling defamations are made by and delivered to constituents not in and around the defamed, I suspect opposition will remain faint. Given our continued grip on those elements of "credibility", retorts from enemy regions have been swatted away like flies.  I would like to express one concern, if I may. The one area our organizations seem to have underestimated is the endurance and tenacity of this mid-country bourgeoisie. Lethargy and indolence are not at the level we would have anticipated. To the contrary, I would go so far as to say if you will allow me to do so, NS et. al. severely miscalculated their capacity for reasoning. No doubt many cannot reason their way out of a paper bag. Nonetheless, it appears the proportion of intelligents is relatively similar to our strongholds. More importantly, they are spreading word of contradictions and denials that even our own mediates fail to see. Luckily at this stage, our aforementioned control of reputable outlets persists. If this were to go, I fear our efforts would be for not.  I eagerly await further direction.  Respectfully, [name redacted]

Response from: [Guru Strategist]

Ensure there is zero opportunity for said outlets to consider rebuttals. Raise volume on fringe elements. Equate entirety of region as participant or complicit. All constituents await this message with inclined ears. Give them nothing more to consider - confirm their foes evils. It will be a relief for which they will be grateful. I will deal with so-called "reasoning intelligents" only after control is solidified.  [name redacted]

Means to Control

For thousands and thousands of years, humans' modus operandi has been not to ignore oddities, but to observe (and often run). Organized religion provided a means of controlling people in organized society, hence attracting a few unsavory (nominally religious) characters and policies. Now the same modernity declaring religion outdated (and that problems are caused by religions not by humans) tells us to ignore everything until told otherwise by an ordained priesthood of well-educated theoreticians. The irony is how they miss that they are merely asking us to convert to a newfounded, modernized belief system—The Creed of the Intelligentsia (that is, IYIs).

The above dialogue isn't real. But it is true. And as it suggests, the most dangerous aspect of recent years has been the complicitness of media-types to go along with the rouse; to label anything they dislike as "fake" or conspiratorial. (This goes for both sides, though obviously each side remembers only their own reasons for grievance.) Data has become their god, yet they are unfamiliar with its shifting sands. They shout "evidence-based" without understanding when it does not apply. Their naivete is displayed in their request for ample evidence of danger. And in so doing, they mistakenly categorize observation as conspiracy. That is, whatever they disagree with should be excommunicated.

There has been a commandeering of the term "Freedom of the Press". We seem to have forgotten why it was not distinct from free speech in the Bill of Rights; why freedom of press is inseparable from free speech. The First Amendment reads:

"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."

The relevant definition of "press" from Webster's 1828 Dictionary (emphasis my own):

PRESS, noun

1. An instrument or machine by which any body is squeezed, crushed or forced into a more compact form...

2. A machine for printing; a printing-press. Great improvements have been lately made in the construction of presses.

3. The art or business of printing and publishing. A free press is a great blessing to a free people; a licentious press is a curse to society.

The linguistic meaning of 'press' has evolved into something quite different than what it would've meant in the 18th and 19th centuries. Freedom of the press did not imply just freedom of the press corp. It was not exclusive to institutional news media, as it is often thought of in the U.S. today. A free press was the freedom of the citizenry to not be arbitrarily inhibited, in speech or in writing, by powers who disagreed. In this way, printing press would equate to the medium of publishing. And I doubt many would've ever considered a party calling themselves 'the press' would ultimately be the ones pushing for suppression of that very freedom. One understands this as soon as they understand that there was no press corp., no institutional news media, as we know it today. Press quite literally meant the machine that printed words, or any business employing such machines. Early newspapers were ubiquitous. Anyone with a message would launch or team up with a newspaper, not much different than how people today launch blogs or post on various sites.

Why Freedom of Press, Correctly Defined, Is Vital

The purpose of correcting this definition is clear in the current moment. Media outlets, for all their historical integrity and healthy opposition, had been on the verge of extinction. Subscriber growth accelerated only in the past few years and primarily for a select few publications. They now act as suppressors of dissent. On one hand, the New York Times reports that conspirators are messing up the polls. They inform us pollsters may have missed "followers of the QAnon", those rugged "conspiracy theorists [who] tend to distrust mainstream media organizations like FiveThirtyEight or The New York Times." What does this imply about people who simply question the New York Times? Do they now warrant the 'conspiracy theorist' label?

On the other hand, they say polls are hard because only 6% of people answer their phones. Which is it? Because it cannot be both. It wasn't that the media was wrong or that they misunderstand what people think. It was those pesky conspirators. Misinformation is now due to the opposition's distrust of the mainstream priesthood. Of course, they would have us believe people have been given no reason to be suspicious. Nevermind that so many NYT staffers disagree with the hostile climate but can't speak their minds for fear of retribution. And by all means, ignore that "Across all racial groups, 80% of Americans say 'political correctness is a problem'... Only the small 'Progressive Activist' [8% of the population] thinks it's not." Ignore this especially when assessing why a record number of minorities and historically oppressed groups voted for "the wrong candidate".

Are the 94% who do not pick up the phone part of the conspiracy? Conspiracy suggests secret plots and harmonious actions spurred by unknowable, irresolvable, or highly exaggerated claims. Are we to believe a large chunk of mid-country citizens are in on it? Or, might I suggest the media's conspiratorial claims about the secret plots to discredit them are inherently conspiratorial. That is, they are claims that make sweeping and unknowable assumptions about millions of people. The average person is conflated with the fringe because they share a distrust of the New York Times and others. Here again, we see a twisting of words. Incumbent media may have us believe that their reporting does not frequently undermine the very facts before our eyes. It is reminiscent of the man whose best friend, after being caught cheating, replied, "Who are you going to believe, me or your eyes!?"

Is not the purpose of speech and the press to oppose; to dissent? Why yes, certainly. History leaves little room for ambiguity as to why the right to oppose is critical to a free society (e.g. recent events in Hong Kong). And therein lies the contradiction they would apparently prefer not be raisedthat the squashing of dissent, regardless of medium or venue, eventually creates more problems than it solves. Inevitably the dissenters will be right, if in nothing more than hindsight, and the protectionist muzzlers will be shown in their true light. (This is not a statement of conspiracy, but me giving journalists the benefit of the doubt. Which is to say I am assuming they are not blind to the contradictions.)

The question that cannot be avoided for those in the real world, but that the theorists and journalists find annoying: "What if we're wrong?"

"Looking back we can see how indirectly we know the environment in which nevertheless we live... whatever we believe to be a true picture, we treat as if it were the environment itself... in respect to other peoples and other ages we flatter ourselves that it is easy to see when they were in deadly earnest about ludicrous pictures of the world. We insist, because of our superior hindsight, that the world as they needed to know it, and the world as they did know it, were often two quite contradictory things. We can see, too, that while they governed and fought, traded and reformed in the world as they imagined it to be, they produced results, or failed to produce any, in the world as it was. They started for the Indies and found America. They diagnosed evil and hanged old women. They thought they could grow rich by always selling and never buying."

—Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (1922)

The problem above all problems is the inability to imagine that one's assessment of the world might be wrong. Lippman, the father of modern journalism and coiner of the term "stereotype", is no simple figure. I consider him similar to Ayn Rand, not in ideology but in how he could saliently assess complex social problems. Yet the risk is not in the identification of problems; the danger is in the solution. Here Lippman must be commended for what he was rather than as his ideas are used today. He did not ignore new information, nor the wisdom that comes with age.

Lippmann was lauded for his earlier works, including Public Opinion, which implored elites to find ways to accomplish policy goals without the consent of the people. Enter the Almond-Lippmann consensus, for which Walter Lippmann is most well-known. In short, the consensus states that public opinion is (1) volatile, (2) incoherent, and (3) irrelevant to the policymaking process. He later changed his tune, saying the elites were doing more damage than good. He said the public turned out to be more right on issues like war than heads of state. This message was cast aside. Poor Lippmann had become to his adherents an out-of-touch old man.

No one knows what's real until after the fact. Where a group is wrong is often evident only in hindsight. Harm is caused less when something false is published, a frequent occurrence in any period, than when a group's right to speak and publish is shut down. This does not at all imply it is okay to say whatever one wants, nor that it is wise for partisans to publish outlandish or irresolvable claims. There are obvious exceptions to free speech. Explicitly encouraging and inciting violence should be wholly disallowed. This goes for Steve Bannon and the rationalizers of destructive rioting.

It should go without saying that condoning (or normalizing) violence for one side implies it's okay, as long as you're right. Hence, when the other side feels just as right? Well that's quite a conundrum.

The third 1828 definition of 'press' provides the goalpost: A free press is a great blessing to a free people; a licentious press is a curse to society. 'Free press' here means the ability to publish; and 'licentious press', unopposed and unrestrained or lacking diverse opinions. Is not fascism, defined as "forcible suppression of opposition and strong regimentation of society", the act of shutting-up and punishing out-of-favor peoples? As familiar as this should be to modern intellectuals, they seem unable to recognize in themselves the fascism for which they accuse others. The solution to extremism, as Anne Applebaum wrote, is not more extremism. It is a return to civility and a rejection of the guillotine. And by civility I do not mean being nice. I mean a societal refusal to shutdown opposing voices.

Don't be distracted by emotions like anger, envy, resentment. These just zap energy and waste time.

Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

©2020 Benjamin Chase Chandler.  

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