The concept of news may have morphed from the dissemination of accurate and complete information for diverse purposes, including the facilitation of functional democracy, towards deceptive propaganda designed to manipulate its readers, listeners and viewers towards postures, political and otherwise, disconnected from reality but hugely beneficial to the personal interests of a very few who have attained and desire to maintain permanent socioeconomic and political control in the face of the vagaries inherent in real democracy. On the other hand, if one analyzes history objectively, perhaps that has been the norm and the perspectives we are sold concerning a purportedly free press and its benefits have almost always been illusory.
For better or for worse, New York has had an inordinate impact on the concept of freedom of the press in the United States, and by contagion, on the world at large. It started during the period 1733– 5 in an incident involving a printer rather than a reporter (the printer being today’s equivalent of a publisher), who’d been sued for libeling the unpopular governor of New York by printing a series of articles in his publication, The New York Weekly Journal. A fairly brief but complete description of the issues, trial and decision can be found at the Online Library of Liberty, a seemingly conservative collector of what it deems scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets [see, Author unknown but probably John Peter Zenger himself (1736), “A Brief Narrative of the Case and Tryal of John Peter Zenger, Printer of the New York Weekly Journal; New York, 1736, (Abridged), introductory Note by Eugene F. Miller]. The decision on August 4, 1735 was a jury acquittal involving an indictment for libel and involved two critical but different concepts, one of which has been subsequently rejected, at least by the government: the concept that jurors not only decide the veracity of the facts at issue but the legitimacy of the legal norms sought to be applied, what we today might think of as constitutional control (a power since usurped by the judiciary). The other has been more polemic, the existence of freedom of expression (including freedom of the press) and its legitimate boundaries. A reasoned decision was not issued by the court so the “narrative” referenced above provides the principle basis on which we’ve relied for almost three centuries concerning that momentous rejection of state imposed standards. A subsequent case more than two centuries later crystalized many elements of the concept of freedom of the press, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). Interestingly, in both cases, the fundamental premise seems to be that the right to be wrong in the dissemination of information is sacred, if not undertaken in bad faith.
Today, the “bad faith” limitation seems to have become irrelevant, a point illustrated in an article written by either Aaron Maté via The Nation or Tyler Durden in ZeroHedge.com/ABC Media, LTD (the lack of clarity regarding authorship being ironically appropriate, see “Why The Manafort Revelation Is Not A Smoking Gun”, January 13, 2019) but even more important and informative on point is Caitlin Johnstone’s blog article published in diverse media, “A New Narrative Control Firm Works to Destroy Alternative Media” (January 14, 2019). The subject of both articles is the purportedly “mainstream media’s blatant reporting of knowingly false information designed to facilitate the removal from office of the somewhat quirky President of the United States, Donald John Trump. The subject involved the purported sharing of polling data concerning the 2016 presidential election by Paul Manafort, briefly Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman, with an associate who several decades earlier may have had some involvement with the former Soviet Union’s intelligence services. The New York Times initially reported the story incorrectly indicating that the individual involved was Russian, later retracting that assertion to indicate that he was Ukrainian (the Ukraine today being as far removed from Russia as it is possible to be). Nonetheless, most of the “mainstream” media and all major Democratic Party leaders continue to tout the allegation substituting volume and frequency for the story’s lack of veracity. Note that notwithstanding the hyperbole, there is nothing illegal or even inappropriate concerning the sharing of polling data, this incident being illustrative only of the current reality that the presentation of anything, whether or not factual or even relevant in loud and repetitive hyperbolic fashion more than makes up for any lack of significance or candor. Imagine if you will a headline in bold type filling the entire front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post and echoed in the numerous publications (e.g., the Boston Globe and L.A. Times) that generally publish indistinguishable stories: “Sun Dawns in the East, Proof that Trump Stole Clinton’s Presidency”!
Many of us on the real left, i.e., those of us who believe that when individual and collective rights find themselves in irresolvable conflict, collective rights must triumph, are very opposed to the policies of the current occupant of the White House and many of us find his mannerisms offensive and obnoxious, but to be honest, we feel the same way with respect to his faux liberal, Clinton – Obama led opponents in the Democratic Party. Indeed, the latter are much more dangerous to the policies we support because by seeming to agree with them but assuring that they are never implemented, they deprive us of an opportunity to mount real opposition to the twin econo-political monsters we oppose, neoliberalism and neoconservatism, the “militarized capitalism” that, from our perspective, is responsible for most of the world’s problems and the main obstacles to a just world at peace where equity, justice and equality are respected realities. However, we on the real left (we hate it when the right wing refers to Democrats as the left) recognize that the current attempts at a purportedly soft coup are much more dangerous than are Mr. Trump’s short sighted policies, policies that in almost every aspect other than authorship, are virtually identical to policies supported and implemented by his virulent opponents when the reins of government were held in their hands, a reality vehemently obfuscated by what today passes for a “free press”. The truth, as perceived by many of us is that Mr. Trump is absolutely correct about at least one thing, that “fake news” predominates in the purportedly “mainstream” media, and that the collective of institutions that disseminate it are the real enemies of the People. They are not legitimate journalists but mercenary fantasy writers, the bulk of real news today being available only through non-traditional alternative sources, but sources under vicious attack from both governmental and corporate sources, George Orwell’s nightmares having become glaring realities.
When one examines the underpinnings of our doctrine of freedom of the press, perhaps that ought not to be surprising since what has always been defended is the right to express erroneous views. Our press has never really been a fount of accuracy but rather, all too frequently, a calumny dissemination factory seeking to push us into unwarranted wars. Consider the great slander wars between founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, or the battles to see who could most quickly and effectively push us into war with Spain, Joseph Pulitzer or William Randolph Hearst, or consider how we got into Vietnam, or Iraq, or Libya or Syria or the current efforts to get us into a hot war with Iran, or North Korea, or China or Russia. Today’s purveyors of false news are MSNBC and CNNN and Fox News and the New York Times and The Washington Post: Goliaths pitted against the lonely likes of Caitlin Johnstone, Chris Hedges, Seymour Hersh, Julian Assange, Robert Fisk, the late-Robert Parry, Richard Wolff, Amy Goodman, Noam Chomskey, Glenn Greenwald, Robert Sheer, William Blum, Naomi Klein and Alex Christoforou.
Popular political philosopher Jürgen Habermas expressed the view that a healthy democratic community required a space where rational debate could take place between engaged citizens outside the control of any authority so that ideas might be exchanged among participants on an equal footing. Many of us believed that ideal had been made possible through social media on the Internet but some of us were a bit more sanguine, hearing George Orwell’s echoes all too clearly, and warned that, as is the case with almost everything, social media would soon be perverted and controlled by the same old crowd (i.e., not the Russians but the Deep State and its cronies). It has been, in an almost satirical manner: we are now being told, very loudly and repetitively, that we must be censored in order to protect us from ourselves, and of course, … from the genetically evil Russians. Political meddling (and outright interference, as in invasions and coups) is only justified when we do it to others, or, as we are witnessing now, when we do it to ourselves. The right to free expression does not apply, according to our de facto masters, when engaged in by “foreigners” even if their information is accurate (e.g., the WikiLeaks disclosure of Clinton and DNC emails).
Strange how the ideals and ideas of the losers in World War II seem to have prevailed. Nazis have morphed into Zionists and the “big lie’ technique attributed to Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels has become our own. The spoils of war perhaps.
I wonder what that the members of that brave jury in the trial of John Peter Zenger would have thought of how far we’ve strayed from what they perceived, almost three centuries ago.
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2019; all rights reserved. Please feel free to share with appropriate attribution.
Guillermo Calvo Mahé (a sometime poet) is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia although he has primarily lived in the United States of America (of which he is a citizen). Until recently he chaired the political science, government and international relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales. He has academic degrees in political science (the Citadel), law (St. John’s University), international legal studies (New York University) and translation and linguistic studies (the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies). He can be contacted at email@example.com and much of his writing is available through his blog at http://www.guillermocalvo.com.