11/03/2007 03:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Real Meaning Of 'Free Press'


Freedom of Press Is An Obligation,  Not A Luxury

For the second time in so many presidential terms, George W. Bush is using propaganda to drive the nation into preemptive war on false pretenses. Last time it was Iraq; this time Iran.  And what of the press?  This week, the mainstream media ran stories about UFOs, Hilary Clinton's being a woman, and--most importantly--Don Imus' return. 

Amazingly, the more visible a media outlet is in the United States, the less concerned they seem.  The bigger the broadcast reach of a news station, the less they seem to care that the country is petrified at the prospect of Bush driving our military into another head-on collision with disaster.   

The media, it seems, has forgotten the lesson of Thomas Jefferson and they are no longer holding up their end of the bargain as a result.

Way back in 1787 Thomas Jefferson once wrote that 'free press' is one of the keys to a functioning Democracy.  By reporting on UFOs in a week when the country is worried about a President waging another war on false pretenses, the media has lost touch with Jefferson's initial idea.  As Jefferson once put it, 'free press' is not primarily about freedom of expression, it is about maintaining the proper 'basis' of America government':

The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

The purpose of a 'free press,' in other words, was not simply for the press to report whatever they felt like. The free press was only free if they reported news and events in such a way that their work guaranteed that the 'opinion of the people' would remain 'the basis of our government'--of American government.   

This week, the press demonstrated that they either forgot or no longer cared about Jefferson's principle.   Rather than making sure the opinion of the people stayed front and center, they made a mockery of the people by reporting on UFOs in this critical run-up to another unjust, preemptive war.  Oh well.  It's only the Bill of Rights, right?

Much of the media, it seems, has forgotten that it plays a role not just in circulating information as entertainment, but to make sure that government itself can function.

That's right:  the media needs to work a certain way or our government cannot function, cannot work, cannot do its job. 

Walter Lippmann put it best when he noted that a 'free press' was not a privilege of the individual, but an 'organic necessity' of democracy itself:

A free press is not a privilege but an organic necessity in a great society. Without criticism and reliable and intelligent reporting, the government cannot govern. For there is no adequate way in which it can keep itself informed about what the people of the country are thinking and doing and wanting.

Lippmann, for course, had doubts about whether the media could ever play the role that was required of it, given the economic and structural limitations in which it function.  But his notion of an 'organic necessity' is a haunting idea that we would all be well-served by repeating a few hundred times as we go about our lives.


For what our country suffers from these days is a conspicuous absent of that organic necessity that allows our government to govern.

Specifically, the people of the country are thinking and doing and wanting that our government should not start any new wars until it first wraps up as best it can the disastrous situation in Iraq.

And yet, the government ignores what the people are thinking and doing and wanting to march to war with Iran despite the ongoing disaster in Iraq.

So what can we do?

Change Your Routine

Each of us can take steps to restoring the 'organic necessity' of the media by changing the media we frequent.

For a starting point, take a look at page 37 in 50 Simple Things You Can Do To  Fight The Right, a book full of hands-on ideas for action in a time when the press has lost touch with its own purpose.  There you will find a whole bunch of media sources who all understand their role as 'organic necessities' working to make sure our government can govern.

Even better, check out this list of alternative magazines:

One of my favorites is Mother Jones, but I always suggest people take a look at In These Times, one of the great progressive media sources not well enough known by Americans.

Want to help restore the meaning and value of the free press in this country--checkout  In These Times and then tell ten friends about it.  Talking about Jefferson and Lippmann is important, but it's even better if we can follow up with a concrete suggestion for people to make the situation better right now.

So remember what Jefferson and Lippmann each observed about the true meaning of the 'free press.'  Then bring the truly 'free press' into your personal  habits, and spread the word.

The ability of our government to govern depends on it.

(cross posted from Frameshop)