On Sunday, July 15, 2012, Jeremy Peters of The New York Times admitted in print something to his shame. He lets a government office, or a campaign office, vet any quote from an interview subject before he runs the interview. This is not how a free press works. It shows how low the owners of the Times and probably most other mainstream organs will stoop for “access.” The most insidious way to control someone is to bribe (or blackmail) him to letting him control you.
What is a free press?
Amendment I of the Constitution reads in part:
Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom…of the press.
A free press exists to watch the government and to tell the people what the government is doing. So it must be out of the control, not only of the government but also of any politician, party, or faction.
The press in the early days of the Republic was technically a free press. Each party could and did set up its own newspaper. None of these papers pretended to be objective. But at least no party could shut down another party’s paper. So whatever one paper printed, another paper would check out. Lies never worked under that system.
But when men like Arthur L. Ochs, Joseph Pulitzer, and William Randolph Hearst founded big-city papers, everything changed. The New York Times (the Ochs paper, now belonging to their in-laws the Sulzbergers), The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (the Pulitzer paper), and other such papers pretended to be objective. The pretense held up long enough for the Progressive movement to take over all or most of them. These became the Mainstream Media. As radio became popular, giant radio networks formed and founded their own news divisions. These organs competed only for national circulation, audience, and later viewership when the people could afford television. They did not compete on views of the news. (And if everyone reports the same thing, how does one reader, listener, or viewer know that what he reads, hears, or watches is the truth?)
But the ideal of a free press never died. Two things broke down the barriers-to-entry that protected the Mainstream Media. The Internet gave the people a new way to share the news, one not nearly as expensive as a traditional offset press or a brick-and-mortar radio or TV studio. And in the second term of President Ronald Reagan, the Federal Communications Commission abolished the mis-named Fairness Doctrine. These two events gave us the alternative media.CNAV is a part of that.
Details of the Peters story
The New York Times, November 11, 1918. Photo: New York Times Archive.
Leaders of the alternative media have long suspected that they are the only ones running a truly free press in America today. Until last week, no one in the Mainstream Media would ever admit to being other than a free press. A free press criticizes everyone equally, without regard to anything but the truth. A reporter might check with a source, or an interview subject, to make sure that he got the other person’s words right. But he would never let the other person tell him, “I never said that” when he did.
Jeremy Peters of The New York Times now admits that he does just that. Even when a reporter has an independent record of a subject’s remarks, he still sends his prose to the subject, who may approve or disapprove . The subject may disallow the whole article, or go over it line by line, word by word and send back a new article with up to half its words crossed out. When a reporter may not even rely solely on his notes, or on a recording device, when he has those tools available and knows how to use them, he elevates his subject to the role of editor.
Joseph L. Farah of World Net Daily expressed an outrage that anyone can understand. He moved from Mainstream Media to alternative media.WND is one of the first alternative-media organs.
What it means is this: When Americans read these reports – whether in newspapers, wire services or on the Internet – they are not really reading news stories at all. They are reading approved, pre-packaged press releases from the government and politicians. But, even worse, they are not labeled as such. They are labeled as actual news.
Nor is the White House the only offender. Mitt Romney’s campaign demands the same favor. And the Mainstream Media grant it. (That they would do the same favor for both of two bitter rivals, each of whom badly wants to be President, is, frankly, weird. They did not do that favor for Dan Quayle or his family in the 1988 campaign, nor for Sarah Palin four years ago.)
The larger point: a free press does not do things this way.
Doug Book at the Western Center for Journalism said the same, except that he forgot to quote Peters as saying that he and his colleagues did the same favors for Mitt Romney.
Ellen Rattner, a liberal columnist, expressed the same outrage. She also said that this sort of thing has gone on at least since 1993:
Four years ago, I interviewed the editor of a government-sponsored newspaper in the Middle East. Given that the government paid for the newspaper, I questioned the editor about journalistic integrity and independence. The answer I received: There’s a lot of self-censorship in the American press, and we don’t have as much of a free press as I wanted to believe. I walked away thinking the editor was crazy. Surely, I assured myself, we have a free press in our country.
Fast forward to this week, when an article in the New York Times titled, “Latest Word from the Trail? I Take It Back,” by Jeremy Peters, detailed the quote policy from the Obama White House and the Romney campaign. It was shocking to me as a journalist. I have been covering the White House since 1993, and the control of the press has been increasing.
Let us add to that first paragraph what Ms. Rattner did not say: that Middle Eastern editor leered at her, smiled broadly, and said,
Innocent lady, do you really think that any such thing as a free press exists in your country?
Or words to that effect. She came back and found that he had not lied. But she then blithely said that the Mainstream Media were a free press in 1993, but ceased to be one in 2001. And that the White House of Barack H. Obama did not restore a free press. (“Dr. Eowyn” at Fellowship of the Minds took note of White House hypocrisy The White House said they would restore a truly free press. Now we know that they did not..)
Innocent lady, the Mainstream Media has done favors for The Powers That Be Who Rule (Greek exousai hyperexousai; see Romans 13:1, which renders that as “the governing authorities”) since Ochs, Pulitzer, and Hearst. As an aside: a free press is the “Fourth Estate” of government. The free press took that name from the three Estates of pre-Revolutionary France. They were:
- The clergy
- The nobility
- The people
Technically, the Second Estate does not exist. The Constitution forbids a classical nobility. Whether an unclassical nobility has taken its place is a matter of dispute in patriotic circles. And stories like this, that suggest that Powers That Be, even apart from politicians, have replaced the Second Estate and now boss the Fourth Estate around, don’t help.
How does a free press stop being free?
A free press stops being free when it grows lazy. Letting sources write your copy, and passing that off as news, is a lazy thing to do. So is letting subjects tell you what they said afterward, even when you know they said something else, in return for “access.”
What happens when reporters refuse to do this? They lose “access.” Fine. So he loses “access.” And if he then reports what somebody else says about the subject, that subject has two choices:
- Grant access under the terms of a free press, or:
- Suffer the consequences.
And a good reporter, from an organization having the resources of a New York Times, investigates. He dives into dumpsters, pores over dusty records, and maybe learns to find a subject’s old “significant others” from whom to learn his secrets. He can hire private investigators, either to do some of this work or to teach him how to do it himself. That is reporting. That is the kind of reporting that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at least pretended to do. It is the kind of reporting that Jerome R. Corsi does. It is the kind of reporting that Joseph Pulitzer’s heirs hand out prizes for. Modern reporters do not even pretend. They approach reporting with as much effort as it takes to get their meal at a fast-food joint. They then regurgitate this pap to their readers and call it “news.” That’s their real sin.
So now we know. The Mainstream Media is not a free press. They are a lazy flock of sheep. To be a free press is not easy. It takes work. Sometimes it takes risk. But if more reporters would do that kind of work, and take that kind of risk, maybe some of their subjects would tell the truth. They would know that the free press would catch them out anyway if they tried to lie. And maybe they would stop losing circulation, audience, and viewership.