This piece was originally planned for release on the week that the Boston Globe and 300 other newspapers published editorials defending journalism and the institutional free press.
This grew into a longer and longer piece in light of the events that followed the editorial call.
This delay should not be mistaken for tepid support by Dark Market Economist for the Boston Globe’s call and the spontaneous support provided news organizations that published alongside them on that day.
We laud the bravery of the Globe for taking a stance on what might be misconstrued—especially in these partisan times—as attacking on a politician and the country he leads, rather than defending an institution that his office is built upon.
A clarion call sounded from Boston
On August 16th, a succinct call from Boston Globe’s editorial section rang out, declaring—”Journalists are not the enemy.”
It all began days earlier, when the Boston Globe’s editorial department called for newsrooms to published editorials criticizing President Trump’s attacks on journalists and the free press, through his use of phrases like “[E]nemies of the People” as well as other unwarranted and unfounded—and historically speaking—unconstitutional speech against the press.
In an interview with MPR on the morning of the 16th, Marjorie Pritchard, deputy managing editor for the Boston Globe, elaborated on why the editorial was direct toward the President in particular, “He’s calling the press a domestic enemy. And we are fellow countrymen, and our profession is to hold the powerful accountable. And that could have potential consequences with his rhetoric.”, continuing that, “. . .[T]his editorial project is not against the Trump administration’s agenda. It’s a response to put us into the public discourse and defend the First Amendment.”
“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.”
Bill of Rights
Our founder’s of the United States, with all of their flaws and ignorance taken into account, maintained the centrality of our right to freely express ourselves so that people were free to challenge the powers that be, whoever they were and whatever they stood for. One of the country’s foundational thinkers, Benjamin Franklin, regarded the free press as a court, An Account of the Supremest Court of judicature in Pennsylvania , viz., The court of the Press,
In it he placed the “court of the free press” above the highest courts of his time, “[I]ts authority is founded in the constitutions of the state, which establishes the liberty of the press: a liberty which every Pennsylvania would fight and die for; tho’ few of us, I believe, have distinct ideas of its nature and extent.”
While Franklin may have been right about Pennsylvanians being willing to fight and die for the right of the free press, in only a short time after writing his account, congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts that targeted anyone that opposed the Federalists that enacted it, including Franklin’s own son:
“Write, print, utter or publish, or … cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or … knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States.”
Excerpt from the Alien and Sedition Acts
Alien and Sedition Acts
As President John Adams, a federalist, signed in a series of laws that came to be known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. These were passed back in 1798 and mostly designed by the Federalist party itself.
Naturally, the Democratic Republicans, a party created in opposition to the federalists, opposed the law. The law was mostly targeted at how aliens to the United States would become citizens, but the bills mostly restricted the existing criteria for doing so, thus the Alien part of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
But the ‘Sedition’ part was what struck at the Democratic Republicans. As it made “opposing or resisting any law of the United States” or writing or publishing “false, scandalous, and malicious writing”, punishable by up to two years of jail time. It was quite effective at the time, as the Democratic Republicans could not openly speak out against the law, lest they lose supporters to prison terms.
Without official options to turn to, the Democratic Republicans used an unorthodox approach, passing resolutions in each state legislature that they would not enforce the law, meaning leaders in those states could not speak out against it.
Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
Virginia and James Madison
And he wasn’t the only founder to respect the power of the news and the written word. James Madison, himself a prominent contributor to several New York papers for his work on a little work that later came to be known as The Federalist Papers, authored a report on the resolution passed in the Virginia legislature, defending the First Amendment against control by congress, as it was attempting to to regulate the free press through the Alien and Sedition Act.
Kentucky and Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson offered up his own resolution in the Kentucky state legislature, which offered similar condemnations of the proposed law. These vociferous attacks on the acts, and its various means of censorship, wouldn’t stop the harm that would befall the free press at the time, but would eventually remind the public of their sacrifice—and unseat John Adams and the Federalists that sponsored the legislation in the election of 1800.
“. . .[I]n the United States the great and essential rights of the people are secured against legislative as well as against executive ambition. They are secured, not by laws paramount to prerogative, but by constitutions paramount to laws. This security of the freedom of the press requires that it should be exempt not only from previous restraint by the Executive, as in Great Britain, but from legislative restraint also. . .”
Excerpt from the Report on Virginia Resolutions
On the same day that these outlets voiced their opposition, the senate—at this time still more than half Republican—unanimously passed a resolution that affirms the essential role of the free press among our nation’s institutions. The resolution echoes several of the thinkers found above, adding to them figures like President Reagan, the recently departed Justice Anthony Kennedy, and Supreme Court precedent itself.
Going a step further, it isolates the pattern across history, of governments of the far right and left, that have tyrannized their populations by undermining, suppressing, and censoring the press in order to advance their “undemocratic goals and actions”
It asserts, and the senate therefore affirmed that:
[T]he long-held commitment to and constitutional protection of the free press in the United States, has stood as a shinging example of democracy, self-government, and freedom for the world to emulate,”
In the end, the resolution clearly affirmed three things.
One, that press is not the “[E]nemy of the people”. Two, that the role of the press to “inform the electorate, uncover the truth, act as a check on the inherent power of the government, further national discourse and debate,” were central to its constitutionally enshrined role. Third, it regards attacks on the free press its credibility, as attacks on democracy itself.
It concludes that since congress and its members are sworn to defend and uphold the constitution, that it must do the same for the free press, due to its presence their at the very top of our bill of rights.
The Senate’s Defense of the free press was more unanimous than it was among Journalists
Despite the unanimous support for the press in the Senate, some prominent newspapers, including notable papers like The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times, chose not to join in.
The Washington Post’s editorial page editor, Fredd Hiatt, explicitly said that the the organization would not participate in an organized response, pointing to the paper’s existing editorials on the subject.
John Diaz, the editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle explained that while he and his team took threats on the legitimacy of the free press seriously, they also value the independence of individual newsrooms. The Chronicle was left with a quandary—compromising their speech, even for the sake of journalism, would undercut their independence—and that’s a core a time-honored tradition in journalism.
The initial announcement made by Nicholas Goldberg, the LA Times’ editorial page editor, that they would not join in for two reasons. For one, the LA Times produced a full-page editorial, “Trump’s War on Journalism” in 2017, but the Times was clear that it was concerned about that if the entire industry participated, then it would only feed into the President’s attacks on the media. And to be fair, they weren’t wrong entirely.
President Trump and the Free Press
President Trump tweeted three times that day about the media and the free press. First, calling the “FAKE NEWS MEDIA” the “OPPOSITION PARTY”. Second, claiming that the Boston Globe by the New York Times to John Henry for sold for $1—it sold for negative $40 million when one includes pension obligations—and referred to the editorial call to defend the free press as “COLLUSION” with other papers. And in his third tweet, in response, the President expounded his own views on the Freedom of the Press.
There is nothing that I would want more for our Country than true FREEDOM OF THE PRESS. The fact is that the Press is FREE to write and say anything it wants, but much of what it says is FAKE NEWS, pushing a political agenda or just plain trying to hurt people. HONESTY WINS!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 16, 2018
And this, as Dark Market Economist sees it, is where the President and the Press come into conflict. Because the “true FREEDOM OF THE PRESS” is free because it is not an enumerated power—or in plain english, because its freedom depends being free from the President, and the rest of the Federal government.
As an individual, he is free to feel to say what he likes about the press. He can say that we “push political agendas,” and he can say that we say is “FAKE NEWS,” but they are to be left as opinions. All appeals to the greatness of our country’s history and heritage, to the wisdom of our founder’s, and the sacrifices made by citizens that believed in it—all are spat without a respect for the liberties that made that happen.
President Trump is not the first President to endure negative press, nor is he the first to react against it, but his reactions have been some of the most extreme that this country has seen, certainly for this generation.
Past Presidents of the U.S. have endured criticism of a similar nature, but even as they pushed back against it, did so without attacking the integrity of the free press.
President Reagan stood up against the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), on behalf of American news people, proclaiming that, “Both the governments of many nations and certain international organizations advocate or enforce policies alien to a free flow of ideas,’ clarifying that, ‘Of the forces shaping the destiny of our civilization, none is more crucial to our future than the responsible reporting and truthful analysis of the events of our era,”
UNESCO at the time was toying with the idea of establishing licensing for journalists abroad and other ways of defining who was and was not a journalist.
Two years later, On August 2nd 1985, he proclaimed August 4th Freedom of the Press day, in his proclamation he called referred to the free press as, “[A] vital part of our democracy is as important as ever, The news media are now using modern techniques to bring our citizens information not only on a daily basis but instantaneously as important events occur. This flow of information helps make possible an informed electorate and so contributes to our national system of self-government.
John F. Kennedy
Before an address to the Newspaper Publishers Association in April 1961, President John F. Kennedy (JFK), in the wake of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion said,
“I not only could not stifle controversy among your readers—I welcome it. This Administration intends to be candid about its errors; for as a wise man once said: ‘An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.’ We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors; and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.”
And the man meant it literally, as he reportedly read as many as 7 newspapers each day, so if he missed anything on the job, he read the press to acquaint himself with what it was. But Joseph Kennedy, father of John and Bobby Kennedy, encouraged both of his children to explore the news business.
As a reporter with Hearst Newspapers, he saw the opening of the United Nations and the Potsdam Conference where U.S. President Truman and General Secretary of the USSR Joseph Stalin butted heads, this just years before the Cold War would fall into Kennedy’s lap.
His brother Bobby would report directly from Israel in its infancy as a nation-state, supporting the fledgling country—and remarks that would lead to his demise at the hands of Sirhan Sirhan, a Christian Palestinian-Jordianian born in Jerusalem.
Statesmen like JFK, his brother Bobby, and President Ronald Reagan were aware of the press’s importance in our society and to humanity more broadly. The sentiment is distilled perfectly at the end of JFK’s speech to the American Newspaper Publisher’s Association eluded to above.
“It was early in the Seventeenth Century that Francis Bacon remarked on three recent inventions already transforming the world: the compass, gunpowder and the printing press. Now the links between the nations first forged by the compass have made us all citizens of the world, the hopes and threats of one becoming the hopes and threats of us all. In that one world’s efforts to live together, the evolution of gunpowder to its ultimate limit has warned mankind of the terrible consequences of failure.
To the recorder of man’s [sic] deeds, the keeper of his [sic] conscience, the courier of his [sic] news—that we look for strength and assistance, confident that with your help man [sic] will be what he [sic] was born to be: free and independent.“