Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Let Freedom Ring

Freedom of the press is so ingrained in our country’s ideology that contestants on the quiz show “Are you Smarter than a Fifth Grader?” have surely answered questions about the First Amendment.

Rarely does a child make it to middle school without having a good dose of democratic socialization to generate an appreciation for the freedoms we enjoy in America.

But what do those freedoms mean and how much do we really appreciate them?

Those are the basic questions the writings by Merrill, Schmuhl, Picard and Sibert inspire. They ask you, as a journalist, to think about the right of freedom of the press, and how free, free really is.

In pursuing these questions, it is important to understand the values of libertarianism on which the American model of press freedom was founded.

As defined by Siebert the libertarian view says “man is a rational animal and is an end in himself, and the happiness and well-being of the individual is the goal of society.”

Under the libertarian concept, the function of mass media is to provide man (or woman) with the information necessary to make informed decisions about his or her world in order to be free and self-governing.

Siebert further says, “Libertarian theorists assumed that out of a multiplicity of voices of the press, some information reaching the public would be false and some opinions unsound. Nevertheless, the state did not have the right to restrict that which it considered false and unsound.”

Merrill, who seems a radical libertarian, holds the current state of the media to this standard of “total, complete, and utter” freedom, and finds some of the current trends dangerous. He specifically addresses balance, fairness and social responsibility.

Balance suggests an egalitarian view of media coverage, much like we see today on television news shows that cast Democrats and Republicans or left wing and right wing commentators to debate an issue.

These, so called experts, argue incessantly in order to provide equal time to opposing views. But, does that, in any way, make the public more informed? I think the opposite is true. Rarely do these shows present any facts or verifiable information. What the viewer does generally walk away with, is a very good dose of both sides’ opinion.

Imposing rules of fairness also conflict with the values of a totally free press. What does it mean to be fair? Fair to whom? Presumably the ideal of fairness suggests that journalists be impartial, rational and non-discriminatory in reporting events.

But what about the reporter who stumbles upon a story with an obvious villain – a coked-up slum lord who takes tenants money but refuses to address the infectious rat problem or a sleazy politician who uses campaign funds to support the arms trade in Afghanistan. Is the journalist required to be fair in these circumstances? Maybe, but who's to say?

As to the call for social responsibility in the press - one could hardly argue the nobility of fighting social injustice with ink, but as Merrill noted, “making the press “responsible” or “accountable” to anything or anyone negates the very notion of liberty.”

The desire to employ a social agenda should therefore lie in the individual conscience of the journalist and not be imposed as a guiding principle for the profession, Merrill argues.

In fact, the best insurance society has for mass media to produce fair, balanced and socially responsible journalism is "the marketplace of ideas."

By insisting on a totally free press with the rights to publish any and all ideas, views and opinions, Americans will benefit by having all the information necessary to make good decisions about their world and to be free and self-governing.

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