The name of John Peter Zenger is one of history’s footnotes. As the owner and publisher of the New York Weekly Journal in colonial New York, Zenger openly criticized the royal governor and his administration for corrupt practices. To silence Zenger, the governor instituted a libel case against him. The year was 1734. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty, establishing a principle of American democracy wherein the press is free to print whatever it wants – even if it isn’t true. That principle was enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which guarantees freedom of the press. It has become part of the checks and balances in our democracy. In a case in 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that “Under the First Amendment there is no such thing as a false idea. However pernicious an opinion may seem we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries but on the competition of other ideas.”
The above quote gets to the heart of the current topic of “fake news” and the media. When we watch CNN or Fox news we should know that there is an agenda being pushed by each outlet. Same with the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The interpretation of “facts” is largely a measure of that agenda and consumers should recognize that. The key is to be aware of how the news is being spun and to be able to counter ideas with the “competition of other ideas.”
The greatest danger, in my view, is when the media is portrayed as “an enemy of the people.” This kind of charge is really the first step toward an authoritarian non-democratic system. Remember that in all dictatorships, the first target is control of the media. State-run news outlets are common in countries where there is little political and personal freedom. Without an independent media one of the pillars of our checks and balances system is lost. While not a part of government, the press has been rightly called the “Fourth Estate.” This reference to the French Revolution is appropriate in that the press assumes the role of watchdog over the other three groupings (the head of state, the legislative assembly, and the people themselves.)
Attacks on the press have accelerated around the world. Almost 200 investigative journalists were killed last year because they were doing the job they were supposed to do. And that was to get at the truth. Just because consumers don’t like or agree with what the press finds, it is not an excuse to demonize the media. Read widely. Know the positions of the media outlet that you favor. Recognize the bias. And if you don’t like what the news is reporting, combat that reporting with competing ideas.