Free Press?

Dan Rather was fired from CBS Evening News because he was outspoken about then-President George W. Bush’s Air National Guard record. Rather then went to work for Mark Cuban’s H.D. Network where he brings occasional flashes of his old brilliance to major issues that are worthy of serious thought — like the joke that is the wall between Mexico and Texas to keep out the immigrants. He has now written a book which he is busy promoting and in a recent interview he defended his exposé of Bush’s shameful record with the National Guard;

Joining Piers Morgan for a live, face to face interview, the longtime “CBS Evening News” anchor and “60 Minutes” correspondent opened up about the much-scrutinized 2004 report on George W. Bush’s Air National Guard service record:

“We reported a true story. That’s the reason I’m no longer at CBS News,” revealed Rather. “Those who found the story uncomfortable for their partisan political purposes attacked us at what they knew to be the weakest point, which was the documents.”

I don’t care to deal with the question of whether or not Rather got the story straight about Bush’s “military” experience. What interests me here is the question of the restraints on those who report the news. We pride ourselves on our “free press,” but it may be a bit of a stretch when the President objects to something a reporter asks in a press conference and then has that reporter fired.

Thomas Jefferson was a fierce defender of free press, though when he became president he changed his tune somewhat, objecting to the way he himself was being treated in the press. Apparently when the shoe is on the other foot it hurts. Still, in his retirement in 1816 Jefferson wrote to his friend Charles Yancey, “The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man is able to read, all is safe.” Surely, Jefferson was right. A free nation requires a free press — and citizens who are literate. But if the President or any other government official can have a journalist fired for speaking his mind — or asking embarrassing questions — how free is the press, in fact?

Many years ago the Episcopal Bishop of Maryland told a group I was with that he was looking forward one day to reading an “unbiased history of the Civil War — written from the Southern point of view.” Indeed. There is no such thing as an “unbiased” history — or unbiased journalism for that matter. The Bishop knew that: he was having his little joke. Complete objectivity is an ideal that all journalists and historians should strive for but can never reach. There will always be bias and perspective as long as humans are involved.

We hear with annoying frequency that the press is “liberal,” despite the fact that wealthy corporations own much of the media and we know that wealthy corporations are hardly liberal. In addition, of course, there is “Fox News” which is nothing more or less than the right arm of the right-wing in this country. It is not possible for journalists to remain neutral on any social issue of importance, as noted. Newspaper men and women lean left and they lean right. The best we as readers can hope for is to read enough to get some semblance of balance between the two. But it is essential that the journalists be allowed to speak their mind — even if they want to castigate, or even applaud, the President. It is up to us to figure out whether or not what they say is worth reading. But when any official of this government, can silence the pen or mouth of any journalist whatever, there is need for concern. Jefferson was right: no nation can remain free without an informed citizenry. And that requires that all voices be heard.

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5 thoughts on “Free Press?

  1. A partial solution to the problem: widespread distribution of Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.

  2. Good point. And it seems that the corporate influence in the media also plays a role here in terms of deciding how information is filtered and delivered.

  3. One must look with a microscope to find “liberal” media, usually in the alternative press (some libraries subscribe to an alternative press index). For more, see What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News, by Eric Alterman (2003).

  4. The shoe DOES hurt when it’s on the other foot, not everyone can read and write, unfortunately, and some that can, don’t, our voices get quieter and quieter as we speak…

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