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INDELIBLE INK

EXCERPT

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Preamble: the essential liberty

 

 

At the beginning of 1941, two months after he had become the first (and still only) U.S. president elected more than twice, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his ninth annual State of the Union address to Congress. Better known as the “Four Freedoms” speech and regarded by many historians as FDR’s most memorable oration other than his First Inaugural Address, his remarks came sixteen months after the Second World War had detonated in Europe. Although Roosevelt had pledged to keep the country out of that global cataclysm as long as possible, his January 1941 address was phrased to justify eventual U.S. participation in the unfolding struggle against totalitarian powers that spurned the rights and liberties at the core of America’s political creed.

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure,” the president asserted, “we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.” The other three he listed were freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Only the first of these required no elaboration. Like Lincoln’s Gettysburg declaration of universal equality and the imperishability of democracy, the liberty to express ourselves by whatever spoken and written words we choose without risk or reprisal was a self-evident—and the most imperative—blessing among the constellation of values said to be every American’s birthright. It is the one form of freedom that, once lost, imperils all the others. Suppressing public grievances and dissent, history tells us, has been every dictatorship’s fixed policy—and often its chief preoccupation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In the wake of World War II, with the decline of Western imperialism and the confinement of communism, democracy spread around the world, and the accompanying human rights movement notably broadened the latitude of free expression. Still, stringent state censorship remains a malignant practice in many places—China and smaller Asian countries, Russia, much of Africa, most of Islam, and lands where democracy’s foothold is fresh and tentative, like parts of Latin America and Eastern Europe. Even where paid lip service, liberty of expression is highly prone to manipulation by rogue rulers, while unapologetic police states train their shackled media to promote conformity of thought and compliance with regime commands. The world, then, while evidencing hopeful signs of enhanced personal freedom, remains in large part an unruly place that the United States has endeavored for a century now to liberate from tyranny. This mission—altruistic and providential to the minds of its advocates, arbitrary and delusional in the eyes of skeptics—has cost the nation an immensity of blood and treasure, to the point that cooler heads cry out for restraint; better to serve humanity as liberty’s role model, not its armed redeemer. And how better to inspire other societies, especially those struggling to cast off the yoke of despotism, than to display with pride our devotion to free expression? The United States was indeed the first nation in history to monumentalize liberty of speech and the press as a fundamental right of its people.

It is tempting, then, at a time when political cynicism is rife and yearnings for social justice can sound more strident than stirring, to ask why Americans ought to bother themselves about, of all things, the sanctity of the first of Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. Hasn’t the liberty of spoken and written expression been fixed long and securely enough in our firmament to withstand any challenge? Aren’t we confronted with far more urgent and divisive issues? America faces an ever-widening gulf between unbounded wealth and dead-end poverty, between her compassionate and callous impulses. Our precious democracy itself may be coming apart at the seams, yet instead of trying to fix it, our public discourse grows more rancorous, driving government toward the outer banks of dysfunction and irrelevance. But it is folly to suppose in our present condition, with fanaticism abroad fanning heightened anxiety and violence at home, that any of our freedoms is immune from infection, with potentially fatal consequences if not diligently monitored.

 

 

 

 

 

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There are signs, if we choose to notice them, that American press freedom—or media freedom, as we might term it—has become tarnished of late, and that journalists, its professional practitioners, have been devalued as a group. Consider the 2014 World Press Freedom Index compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders (RWB), a nonprofit, unaffiliated organization headquartered in France and serving as a consultant to the United Nations. RWB’s purpose is to track assaults on freedom of information worldwide, call them to the attention of global media, and work with governments to fight censorship and laws aimed at restricting liberty of expression. The organization’s index is compiled from extensive questionnaires submitted by eighteen freedom-of-expression affiliate groups and 150 correspondents around the world and takes into account, among other factors, the legal framework for media and how they are regulated, penalties for press offenses, violence against journalists, and violations of the free flow of information on the Internet. Lamenting “a profound erosion of press freedom in the United States” over recent years, the RWB’s latest survey of 180 nations rated America 46th in the world. This ranking placed the U.S. behind Finland (No. 1), Denmark (7), Germany (14), Canada (18), Uruguay (26), the United Kingdom (33), France (39), and South Africa (42). Lower-ranked than the United States were such nations with relatively recent or nonexistent democratic orientation as Argentina (55), Japan (59), Kenya (85), Indonesia (132), India (140), Russia (148), Mexico (152), Egypt (159), Cuba (170), Iran (173), and China (175). The main reasons cited for the low U.S. score as a citadel for press freedom among Western democracies were the Department of Justice’s “aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers” and government security leakers and mounting pressure on investigative reporters to disclose sources of information greatly in the public interest but embarrassing to government officials. “Freedom of information is too often sacrificed to an overly broad and abusive interpretation of national security needs, marking a disturbing retreat from democratic practices,” RWB commented.

 

 

 

 

 

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Consider as well the latest Gallup Poll survey, taken continuously since the 1970s, asking the public to rate the honesty and ethical standards of people by their profession or occupation. In the 2012–14 results, nurses topped the list with 80 percent of the respondents rating them Very High or High in those qualities. Next came engineers at 70 percent; doctors, dentists, and pharmacists grouped in the 63–65 percent range; teachers at all levels, averaging 57 percent; in the mid-40s percent range came, in order, clergy, judges, funeral directors, and accountants. Below them were auto mechanics (29 percent) and building contractors (26 percent). And then came journalists, viewed as very highly or highly honest and ethical by only 24 percent of those polled—a decline from the 1976 percentage of 33. Journalists could salvage a sliver of consolation for ranking above such customary butts of group derision as bankers (23 percent rated as very highly or highly honest and ethical), lawyers (21 percent), business executives (17 percent), insurance salespeople (15 percent), car salespeople (8 percent), and lobbyists (5 percent).

Such data may be dismissed by free-expression champions as imprecise, transitory, or skewed by political bias—but at their peril, because the numbers would seem to suggest, at the least, a worrisome disaffection among Americans toward press freedom since Thomas Jefferson, in a 1787 letter to a Virginia friend, famously extolled its ascendancy over all others:

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. But it should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.

A student of history, Jefferson knew that oppressive governments habitually obscured their iniquities from those who most needed to know of them—and how else but from the press could the people determine whether to retain their government or replace it, rudely if necessary? Jefferson sensed that only an informed electorate, even if its information was at times willfully or unwittingly distorted by the deliverers, could make democracy thrive in America and not degenerate into mindless mob rule. His conviction would be shared by Congress four years later when it passed the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.

 

 

 

 

 

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It would be a miscalculation, though, to confuse this remarkably enlightened innovation in the annals of political history with a universally fond regard for the press among the American people. From the birth of the infant republic, newspapers and journals of opinion, however intrepid on best behavior, have never been without their critics, often among society’s power elite, leery of the press’s constant threat through revelation and protest to topple entrenched authority and warped values. In part, to be sure, the press has suffered rebuke for dishonoring itself by covert partisanship and crass defamation; Jefferson himself, viciously assailed in print throughout much of his career, would write another friend twenty years after his above-quoted paean to the press and six years into his presidency, “Nothing can be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

On balance, the American press need hardly apologize. The disclosures of evildoing and injustice by earlier generations of U.S. journalists—about banks’ malpractices, the inhumanity of slavery, graft and cronyism in government, religious charlatanism, imperialism, exploitation of labor, and chicanery by corporate trusts, to cite some obvious examples—goaded populist outcries for reform once industrial advances made print media more affordable by, and accessible to, the masses. But bearers of ill tidings, journalism’s stock-in-trade, have always risked provoking kill-the-messenger sentiments, an occupational hazard of the profession (along with meager wages and alcohol addiction). And so, over generations, the public has taken an ambivalent view of the gentlemen (and, in time, the ladies) of the press. At their best, journalists have historically been cast as society’s faithful watchdogs over public and private shenanigans—fearless, impartial, resourceful, bearing witness to our amazing feats and endless foibles while casting light into dark, sordid corners. At their worst, they have been vilified as scandalmongers, character assassins, hype artists, news-slanters, and self-appointed vigilantes on power trips.

Yet if the Gallup Poll is to be credited, this traditional ambivalence toward newspeople has escalated in the past few decades into a press-bashing tendency of puzzling origin. It may be attributable more to the speed and scale of advances in technology and their effect on society’s collective psyche than to a decline in the skills, perseverance, or scruples among gatherers and deliverers of the news. We all live in cloudy cyberspace now, where computerized composition, data-processing, and transmission of raw information allow it to “go viral” almost instantaneously, before its content can be corroborated and its meaning assessed. We are afflicted with the evolutionary by-product of more than five centuries of ever-expanding press activity—cerebral overload from all the stuff floating around out there in medialand, which now encompasses virtually every PC, laptop, tablet, and smartphone screen on earth. Compounding this vast interconnective clamor has been the steadily growing encroachment upon authentic news content by artfully confected advertising, justified as essential to pay for it but inevitably demoting journalists from purveyors of intelligence to complicit pitchmen.

 

 

 

 

 

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Lest we grow overly dispirited, though, over the assertion lodged in the latest survey by Reporters Without Borders that press freedom in the United States is seriously on the wane, a little perspective is in order. As suggested above, American journalism and freedom of expression have been radically recast over the past quarter-century by the tech revolution, greatly to the detriment of traditional hard-copy print media. Few communities are served by more than one newspaper. Those publications that survive have seen their circulation, advertising, and staff size hemorrhage, affecting the quality and range of coverage and leaving the public less informed. Arguably, though, this loss has been more than compensated for by the remarkable proliferation of the electronic news media. To speak of “the press” in alluding to today’s collective outpouring from vehicles delivering news, information, and opinion to the public is to indulge an antiquated misnomer. Purists may fault journalism on TV and the Internet for its triviality, herd mentality, and wildly uneven quality, but the same was true of the print media in their heyday.

Still, there is no denying the electronic media’s shortcomings. Television coverage of local news remains abysmal by and large, starved by station owners and limited mostly to crime and weather news with emphasis on whatever graphics dictate; there is little or no investigative reporting on municipal government or anything else. TV network news, swamped by advertising, at least attempts to cover major events, but what gets on air is little better than a gloss, again with visual effects often governing story selection. The morning network shows are a hodgepodge of top-story nuggets, gentle interviews, happy talk, and entertainment gossip. The networks’ evening “half-hour” shows (about eighteen minutes free of commercials) continue to do what pioneer news anchorman John Cameron Swayze called “hopscotching the headlines”—takeouts of a minute or two (three is an eternity) on a few important stories. The Sunday morning news-spotlight shows add some dimension but too often trot out the same camera-craving politicians and fail to press them for clear answers. The Public Broadcasting Service’s Nightly NewsHour offers broader and deeper coverage than any other regular news show, though its budget forces it to stress a talking-heads format that can turn soporific. Friday night’s long-standing Washington Week summary, however, suffers from its brevity; lucid analysis is rushed, and time is wasted on news clips. PBS’s hour-long documentary show Frontline, while idiosyncratic in its selection of subjects, deals with them more informatively and with greater depth than any other TV news program.

 

 

 

 

 

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Cable TV news outlets are a useful expansion of free expression but suffer as a journalistic enterprise from being either so wedded to nonpartisanship, like CNN, that all sides of a controversial story are treated equally regardless of merit, or so committed to political causes, like Fox News and MSNBC, that they wind up preaching to their choirs. CNN is, at least, dutiful, ubiquitous, and earnest, but its news acumen is challenged, substituting 24/7 presence for probing reportage. Two exceptional performers in the cable realm have been CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, who offers more cutting news analysis and conducts more trenchant interviews than anyone else on the air, and Rachel Maddow, an avowed liberal, who at times sardonically documents her diatribes with enterprising investigative reports. Talk radio, too, can be credited for its contribution to our nationwide welter of free expression, but it can in no way be classified as journalism. Its principal aim seems to be to close its listeners’ minds, not open them to fresh ideas. Public radio does just the opposite and merits praise for delving where others would rather drive by.

The most remarkable development in news coverage and the spread of free expression in the present generation has, of course, occurred on the Internet. A lot of what is generated on our screens is undisciplined, loosely written, and often carelessly sourced, but some of it—even what is churned out by lone-wolf bloggers—surely qualifies as journalism and compensates to a degree for staff and space cuts by old-line media that have put a serious crimp in investigative reporting. Imaginative talent has gone into the creation of website news magazines like Slate, Politico, Salon, BuzzFeed, and even the Drudge Report, earning them growing viewership even if their operators’ political and social biases usually tell you where they’re coming from.

All of which is to suggest that America’s free press (to return to its traditional moniker) is alive and kicking, even if its liberty is under constant strain from powerful vested interests, starting with the lords of commerce and industry and the shadowy national security establishment. Well-intended critics like Reporters Without Borders seem misguided in faulting the United States for its “retreat” from press freedom by dwelling on its admitted lapses while blithely ignoring the torrent of free-flowing information, including much self-critical commentary, that the nation’s news media produce, for the most part uninterrupted (if occasionally jeered) by those who fear or despise its content. America remains the world’s splashiest fount of free expression.

 

 

 

 

 

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Complacency, however, is never in order where liberty is concerned. Today, the free media’s task of tracking government conduct and baring its meaner impulses has been turned on its head by regimes in many countries, the United States among them, as officials proclaim an urgent need—and their ordained right, above all others—to spy on, indiscriminately if they so choose, the behavior of the public in order to detect, monitor, and interrupt terrorist or insurrectionary activity anywhere it is suspected (or imagined) to exist. Thus, governments in garrison states and open societies alike are stealthily wielding sophisticated tools of surveillance in the name of national security, no matter the wholesale loss of personal privacy and dignity. One may therefore dare to suggest that on this ever-more-thronged and conflict-ridden planet, journalism, when practiced freely and conscientiously and not as an outlier in the realms of entertainment or partisan advocacy, is more important today than at any time since Gutenberg cranked up his printing press. Making government answerable for its behavior by the intrepid exercise of society’s most essential liberty is, at the least, no less worthy a calling now than when it was first practiced in America. That time was the mid-1730s, forty years before the nation came into being. The place was New York City. The craftsman who carried out the task was named John Peter Zenger, but neither he nor the men whose words he printed—rattling the rulers of the British Empire—are celebrated these days. They deserve to be. Indelible Ink is their story.

—R.K.

 

 

 

 

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