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Freedom of the Press


By BOB HEGAMIN    August 31, 1998

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 the redress of grievance.

On December 15, 1791, with just a few words, the founders and early leaders of a very young United States of America gave unprecedented but explicit rights to its people. On that December day in 1791, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, came into being. It was the response to a vacuum in the Constitution put into effect only two years earlier. Critics had continuously argued the document was weighted too unevenly in favor of a strong central government. And, they were right, for the authors had borrowed heavily from the Roman and Greek democracies.

The founders of the Constitution had been preoccupied with developing laws to govern the country. But, in order to insure the necessary votes for adoption of the Constitution, the "Pro" side had agreed that during the first session of Congress they would approve the "Con’s" list of amendments. And, they did. Relying heavily on their own experiences and the writings of philosophers, they subsequently included language and policies to prevent the type of intrigue and tyranny inherent in governments then persecuting the people of Europe. The result was the Bill of Rights, which explicitly empowered the people with the right of self-determination and self-governance, that is, the republican form of government we enjoy today.


The "freedom of the press,", however, is an interesting aberration among the other concessions made in the First Amendment. It didn’t empower the people in any way, since the "press" – viewed as a business - was generally a small operation, mainly owned by one person and operated with a small staff. But, considering the newspaper or "press" was the only form of mass communication at the time, the First Amendment was apparently used to preserve the "press" for the people -- free from the influence and control of government. Unfortunately, during the past two hundred years, the "press" of the First Amendment has all but disappeared with only a few rural, community, and "small-town" newspapers still adhering to and reflecting the right and inherent duty entrusted to them.


The functions and characteristics of the press in metropolitan areas, on the other hand, were changing to reflect the different needs of a more divergent society. The following is from the Reader’s Digest AMERICA A to Z The Readers Digest Association, Inc. Pleasantville, New York/Montreal.

During the late 19th century, Pulitzer and Hearst tried to outdo each other with sensational headlines, and entertainment began to take precedence over serious journalism. World War I saw a wave of mergers and closings that eventually left the cities with only one paper. In the 1920s such tabloids as The New York Daily News built big circulations with lively photos of crime victims, celebrities, and sports. (emphasis added)
As the "press" was changing its format and content, it was also changing its "reason for being." Free from any threat or intimidation by "government", the "press" gradually came under the influence and control of corporate America. Here, where "government" was not involved, there was no constitutional restriction banning the relationship. Today, the "press" no longer functions as just a news medium but also as an apologist and propaganda machine - through its editorials and ads beyond the editorial page - for those organizations and individuals it supports and which or who support it. The result has brought about the demise of the "press", namely, unbiased, objective, investigative reporting.

Unfortunately, corporate and political alliances have influenced the modern press to the point it is no longer the "press" that was envisioned in the First Amendment.


Just what or who is the "press"? ...Is it the owner of the business? ...the publisher? ...the editor? ...the reporter …the staff? ...or, a combination of all? ...Or is it the business itself? ...Does the "press" also include individuals holding similar positions in the communications business such as radio, television, etc.? ...And, how about the internet?

Was it the intention of those formulating the amendment to give individuals involved in the "press" an additional right? Or, was the right given to the ideological concept of the "press" to prevent government from influencing and controlling it?

It is an important question for which an answer is required. As viewed from the Constitution, each individual in the "press" already has what every other citizen has been guaranteed – the right of free speech. An enigma exists, though, because an individual is the "press" only as long as he or she, who -- playing the role of owner, or publisher, or editor, or officer, or reporter, or staff -- remains in the business. The right of the "press", then, is inherent in the ideological concept of the "press" rather than in the person who is only temporarily involved with its operation and final product.


Although an individual may spend an entire lifetime in the service of the "press", that person can never be the "press." From that perspective and in order to guarantee the safety of the general population from unscrupulous manipulators, it is imperative the "press" meet certain minimum standards, starting with the following:


Those who make decisions in a media organization are not elected officials. They do not have the right to speak for or on behalf of the people. The inherent "power of the press" exists in the concept of "press" and cannot summarily be transferred to those who find themselves working in the business. In other words: The Constitution did not empower the person in the media with the "freedom of the press", yet, ethically he or she has the obligation of being accountable to the people for the integrity of the product. That principle and challenge was accepted for the media by Bernard Shaw on his CNN "Inside Politics" segment July 2, 1998. Mr. Shaw said it best in CNN’s retraction of its "Operation Tailwind" nerve gas story: "Credibility is all we have!"

It is one thing when a reporter misinforms the public by unwittingly slanting some news story with a personal bias. It is a travesty when stories are doctored by deliberate omission of facts, gratuitous information totally irrelevant to the story, or stories that are completely fabricated. But, the administration of the "press" turns itself into an accomplice when it accepts those stories and slants them even further by giving the people a daily diet of corporate or political bias as a reasoned, logical, and legitimate conclusion to a story. It certainly follows that unscrupulous individuals could take unfair advantage of the power of the press by leveraging the "press" to propagate a personal agenda. And that, we can all agree, is certainly not the intent of the First Amendment.