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Too much free press?
By Scott Nicholson

A recent survey by the University of Connecticut revealed that nearly half of all Americans don’t think you should read this column.

Forty-six percent of respondents in the annual “State of the First Amendment” survey said that the American press “has too much freedom.” Yet more than half of all Americans said the quality of information has suffered because fewer corporations are controlling a larger portion of the media. Okay, I put beans on the table and Iraqi blood in my gas tank through means of words and ink, so everything I say is probably going to err on the side of free speech. Since I’ve admitted my bias, then you can have my opinion shoved down your throat with a grain of salt or you can slap me in the face by turning the page or clicking the mouse right now.

There is no such thing as too much freedom of the press. When the framers of the U.S. Constitution sat down at the table, free exchange of ideas was the very first thing they recognized. Sure, they were a bunch of white male slave owners who wouldn’t last two seconds under the politically-correct magnifying glass of today’s reporters, but their document has proven to be the most enduring government guidebook that has ever been crafted.

Let’s review one of my favorite lines of all time, those delicious words that several billion other residents of Planet Earth would love to live under yet plenty of Americans are ready to throw overboard: “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.”

That right holds just as true for Geraldo Rivera as it does for Al Franken or John O’Dowd, and even media hammers like Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch of the Fox conglomerate and global enterprises like AOL-Time-Warner share the same benefits and responsibilities as the local community tri-weekly. If you don’t like how the media is misleading you, then the First Amendment allows start your own newspaper, and in these days of instant communication you can put up a Web page and pitch your version of the truth to the entire world.

When the stakes are higher than mere local politics, people show even more reluctance to turn freedom loose. Two out of three of those surveyed said the news media have done a good job in coverage of the ongoing Iraq war, yet that same percentage said the government should be able to review in advance any reports made from military combat zones. That same survey showed more people now oppose a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning, since torching Old Glory is arguably the ultimate extreme of free speech. A society that can tolerate such a provoking act can be secure in their belief that general freedom is not threatened by individual expressions of freedom, no matter how offensive to the majority.

I don’t see how anyone can be threatened by too much information or too much speech, since a lot of people don’t even bother finding out the truth even when its screamed out by television news anchors who spent all their time in journalism school working on their hairstyles. I suspect those troubled by freedom of the press are more concerned about “too much truth.” Sometimes the truth hurts, or is so bizarre as to be unbelievable despite the material evidence. Another poll showed that a third of all Americans believe weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. Twenty-two percent of Americans believe the Iraqis actually used those weapons against American troops. Even goofier is the 60 percent of all Americans who believe Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for the World Trade Center attacks, even though no one’s sure whether Saddam and Osama have even been in the same country at the same time or had each other’s cell numbers on their speed dials.

The sad part is that those who actually followed the news are probably just as likely to believe these unsupported and unproven claims as those who haven’t cracked a newspaper in their lives. We heard the drone of “weapons of mass destruction” build into a sonorous cacophony, and by the time the phrase became “no weapons of mass destruction,” we were as brain-addled as lab rats who find the maze changing with each new chunk of cheese.

The free press isn’t perfect, and reporters and opinion shapers are human. As humans, we have our own political and social philosophies, we have individual belief systems, we have families and friends and a life beyond the keyboard. Anybody who believes everything they read in the paper is a fool, and anybody who can be persuaded just because a stranger told them how they should think is not worthy of being a voting member of a democracy. A free press is only as free as the minds that consume the media.

I’m free as a writer, and in pay scales journalists are a lot closer to “free” than they care to admit. I’m also quite comfortable with the freedom of others to express their competing views. As a media consumer, you are only as free as you allow yourself to be. If you don’t like it, well, you’re free to disagree. I would never dream of telling you otherwise. But please keep reading the paper just to make sure freedom of the press doesn’t disappear while you aren’t looking.

Originally published in the Watauga Democrat. Copyright 2003 by Scott Nicholson.

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