February 1st, 1998.
On the subject of journalists: I mean to make a more extensive study and report. Limitations of time, however, oblige me to leave it for another day; but, I cannot help touch upon it in this week's commentary. For this past week we observed the American spectacle of seeing the press light down on the presidency; and almost succeeding, vulture like, to pick it to death; though the analogy does an injustice to vultures: they usually wait until the prey is throughly dead before sticking their bald and bloodied heads into the belly of the beast.
When the politicians need to hoodwink the masses in order to achieve political power and keep it, they are openly confessed and unblushingly gloried in by their myrmidons, the press. But beware the "venom and virulence of the demagogue journalists"1 when, unthinkingly and herd like, they turn on the celebrity which they have made. Terrible injury and damage can be done; not only to the person, but to the office occupied.
Freedom of Expression is a fundamental freedom of any citizen. It is written into the constitutions of both Canada and the United States. "It is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom."2 The ultimate good desired is better reached, it is thought, by the free trade in ideas ... "the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market." (Oliver Wendall Holmes, jr.) Whatever it might be, or whatever societal good to which it may lead; Freedom of Expression is not a procedure to guarantee truth, indeed, as Walter Lippmann has written3 it has become "the unrestricted right to exploit the ignorance, and to incite the passions, of the people."
Given the conditions which exist in our "modern world," serious difficulties surround the notions of free thought and free speech. When things are reported by the media, these things move so fast, as Canada's Stephen Leacock pointed out, over fifty years ago, that "it never can be absolutely contradicted." Proclaim out loud for all to hear that some public official has given false testimony or has committed perjury; or, worse yet, to suborn the evidence of another: and, splash it all liberally in drippy sex -- there could never be a full recovery for the man and woman involved, the central objects of their vulture-like attention.
Ambrose Bierce, in referring to newspapers, warned:
"In early days if a man was called a horse-thief and triumphantly proved in a court of law that he wasn't, that settled it. He came out, as they used to say, 'without a stain on his character,' in fact, something of a hero. But very different now. Call a man a public thief over the radio and away it goes like the Roman word. Most people never hear the contradiction, or merely say, 'It was denied,' which is our up-to-date way of saying that perhaps a thing is true and perhaps not. Hence the case for censorship must be argued on new grounds. Freedom of thought and freedom of speech can be turned against liberty instead of enlisted in its service. Wealth in control of utterance can shout poverty down."4
"... are sycophants to the mob, tyrants to the individual, which had assumed 'rights' and privileges to which they weren't entitled for the purpose of controlling public opinion for their own purposes. As such they did compose a separate 'estate' which, by controlling all present forms of communication, could become a dictatorial force in itself. 'They constitute a menace to organized society - a peril to government of any kind; and if ever in America Anarchy shall beg to introduce his dear friend Despotism we shall have to thank our vaunted "freedom of the press."5
I think that I have already made the point, in which case, I repeat myself: the press is not the place to determine the truth of things. Assuming for the moment that the discovery of truth is that which is pursued, versus, the business of selling newspapers, what is needed is the confrontation of opposing views and rules of evidence.
And I end this piece with a part of a poem by William Cowper (1731-1800):
"... the modern media of mass communication do not lend themselves easily to a confrontation of opinions. The dialectical process for finding truth works best when the same audience hears all the sides of the disputation. This is manifestly impossible in the moving pictures: if a film advocates a thesis, the same audience cannot be shown another film designed to answer it. Radio and television broadcasts do permit some debate. But despite the effort of the companies to let opposing views be heard equally, and to organize programs on which there are opposing speakers, the technical conditions of broadcasting do not favour genuine and productive debate. For the audience, tuning on and tuning off here and there, cannot be counted upon to hear, even in summary form, the essential evidence and the main arguments on all the significant sides of a question. Rarely, and on very few public issues, does the mass audience have the benefit of the process by which truth is sifted from error - the dialectic of debate in which there is immediate challenge, reply, cross-examination, and rebuttal. The men who regularly broadcast the news and comment upon the news cannot - like a speaker in the Senate or in the House of Commons - be challenged by one of their listeners and compelled then and there to verify their statements of fact and to re-argue their inferences from the facts.
"Yet when genuine debate is lacking, freedom of speech does not work as it is meant to work. It has lost the principle which regulates it and justifies it - that is to say, dialectic conducted according to logic and the rules of evidence. If there is no effective debate, the unrestricted right to speak will unloose so many propagandists, procurers, and panderers upon the public that sooner or later in self-defense the people will turn to the censors to protect them. An unrestricted and unregulated right to speak cannot be maintained. It will be curtailed for all manner of reasons and pretexts, and to serve all kinds of good, foolish, or sinister ends."6
How shall I speak thee, or thy power address,
Thou God of our idolatry, The Press?
By thee, religion, liberty, and laws,
Exert their influence, and advance their cause:
By thee, worse plagues than Pharaoh's land befell,
Diffused, make earth the vestibule of hell;
Thou fountain, at which drink the good and wise,
Thou ever bubbling spring of endless lies,
Like Eden's dread probationary tree,
Knowledge of good and evil is from thee!
- __ Progress Error.
1 Robert Southey, 1774-1843.
2 Mr. Justice Cardozo, Palko v. Connecticut (1937), 302 U.S. 319, 327.
3 The Public Philosophy (1955), p. 127.
4 Our Heritage of Liberty (1942), p. 60-1.
5 See O'Connor's biography on Bierce, p. 223.
6 Lippman, op. cit., pp. 128-9.