Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Ignorance and freedom

Someone asked me for the complete Jefferson quote about newspapers and government. In digging it up, I came across a column of mine which ran October 2, 2001, less than a month after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

If truth is, in fact, the first casualty of war, it may be a victim of friendly fire.

While Washington ponders the difficulty of fighting an enemy with no particular base of operations and no concrete goals to achieve, American journalists are pondering the ethical boundaries of their profession and erring on the side of caution.

It is a delicate balance, reporting the news in a time of crisis. There certainly is an obligation to be responsible and to, as the physicians say, "Do no harm."

But doing no harm works both ways, and it's shameful that you can log on to the Australian press and read stories about our own nation's activities that are missing from the American press.

For instance, the New York Times wrote a nice feature story this past week about the town where the top-secret Delta Force is stationed. Nobody knows where they went, the story said, but all those quiet young men seem to have disappeared.

Somebody knew. A day earlier, the Age, of Melbourne (www.theage.com.au), reported that about 1,500 American special forces and British SAS troops were in Uzbekistan, on the northern border of Afghanistan.

Is the argument that you can put 1,500 troops on the border of Afghanistan without the Taliban or al-Qaida finding out? Are we to believe that Osama bin Laden reads the American press, but doesn't know Australia also has newspapers?

Or is it that the American media has become such a corporate entity that they tailor the news to suit the spirit of the times? The Boston Globe reports that, when USA Today finally got around to reporting the American presence in Afghanistan (a secret only if bin Laden doesn't read the Pakistani press), talk shows assailed the story as disloyal.

Granted, in a time of crisis, news organizations must weigh freedom against responsibility. But the real disloyalty comes when a timid press fails to report the news so citizens can make their own decisions on crucial issues.

This is not a new mission. When the French Revolution was degenerating into terror, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter from Paris stating that he felt a literate, informed citizenry was a better safeguard against mob violence than any government security force:

"The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs through the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right, and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them."

It was never a perfect system. Upon reaching the White House, Jefferson dismantled the anti-democratic Alien and Sedition Acts, but then conducted his own private war with the vicious, partisan newspapers of the time.

Apparently, he didn't like their approach to keeping public opinion "right."

We no longer have opposition papers, at least in the sense of each town having a different paper for each major political party.

But it sure is scary being a journalist who doesn't wear a flag lapel pin and reproduce the White House press releases exactly as written.

Item: White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer attacked "Politically Correct" television show host Bill Maher for making, um, politically incorrect remarks. Fleischer warned reporters that they need to "watch what they say" and then deleted his chilling phrase from the transcript of the press conference.

Item: A columnist in Grant's Pass, Oregon, and a city editor in Texas City, Texas, lost their jobs for questioning the president's leadership in the hours after the attack.

Item: Missouri state legislators are threatening to cut off funding for the state university's school of journalism, after the news director of the school's TV station told on-air news staff not to wear flag lapel pins, since it might suggest a lack of objectivity.

The old phrase "All the news that's fit to print" takes on an anti-democratic tone when subjected to a political litmus test.

Jefferson also wrote "If a Nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. ... If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed."

To that end, it is the responsibility of the press to report the news, even when those in power do not wish it.

Especially then.


ronnie said...

The words "eerily prescient" come to mind, as things only got worse from that point on as everybody jumped about the War Bandwagon.

I wonder if you have been following Glenn Greenwald's blog on media and its current ailings, Mike?


He's writing some of the best stuff around for my money on how the press rolled over and played dead these last few years, chilled by just the kind of rhetoric that your prescient column observed.

Currently he's been blogging about how established journalists are responding to bloggers' complaints about mainstream media's lack of investigative reporting, and their propensity to report White House versions of events as facts, not with self-examination and adjustment, but with attacks on the bloggers doing the complaining. Some interesting back-and-forth going on in those posts as well.


Sherwood Harrington said...

If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed, eh?

I wonder why this "Jefferson" person hated America so much. Was he a terrorist?

Mike said...

"I wonder why this "Jefferson" person hated America so much. Was he a terrorist?"

"God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all and always well-informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had thirteen States independent for eleven years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each State. What country before ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon, and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."
-- Thomas Jefferson, Nov. 13, 1787

Sherwood Harrington said...

Looks like ol' Tom would be on the no-fly list today, if not in a cell in Guantanamo.