The modern free press

“The modern free press,” Infidel753 Blog, Infidel753

In the US, we have probably the world’s strongest protections for free speech and freedom of the press, thanks to the First Amendment and the citadel of jurisprudence built on it.  And yet the mainstream media here are usually strikingly timid and reluctant to call a spade a spade.  Recent examples of this include their treatment of Trump as a normal presidential candidate despite his abuse of power while previously in office and his role in inciting the January 6 insurrection, and their coverage of House Republicans’ threat to wreck the global economy by refusing to raise the debt ceiling if they don’t get a whole profusion of demands met (those demands themselves being a recipe for recession and plunging millions into poverty) as if it were just ordinary political maneuvering.  At the time the First Amendment was written, the press was expected to take the lead in raising the alarm over such outrages.  Today there seems to be a paralyzing fear of being perceived as “taking sides”, even when the truth requires it.

I think a big part of the problem is the role of money, and sheer size.  Today’s mainstream media are not like the independent newspapers of the late eighteenth century — they are major corporations, usually owned by even more gigantic corporations.  It may be inevitable that as media organizations get bigger, they get more timid.  When there are employees to pay and shareholders to keep happy, the importance of revenue looms ever larger, and leads to a desire not to risk offending advertisers or losing a substantial chunk of one’s established audience.  Telling the whole truth or distancing oneself from a dangerous but popular (in some quarters) demagogue becomes less important.  That doesn’t always mean centrism or moderation.  Because Fox News had entrenched itself in the niche of catering to a certain audience, after the 2020 election they had to parrot Trump’s “stolen election” bullshit even though, as the revelations of the Dominion lawsuit have shown, they knew it to be false.  They couldn’t afford to tell their established audience things which that audience didn’t want to hear.

The smaller, newer, less advertising-dependent news entities that still have that fire in the belly for getting the word out, that view their own very existence as a means to that end rather than the primary thing to protect, that in some cases focus on a particular topic rather than trying to cover all news comprehensively — I’m thinking of Crooks & LiarsThe LeverCanary MediaCommon DreamsReduxxThe Bulwark, and suchlike — are probably a lot closer to what “the press” was like at the time the First Amendment was written than today’s corporatized media behemoths are.  They usually have a strong editorial viewpoint which affects their choice of what to cover — but the big media entities often do as well, and by reading a wide range of sources one can compensate for the biases of any one of them.  And with the internet, even small news organizations have a potentially national or even global reach.

They are also probably less vulnerable to government censorship.  A few giant media corporations with fixed headquarters and assets, with deep financial roots and entanglements, are much more vulnerable to government pressure than hundreds of smaller organizations, each run by a scattering of people often in several different countries, with a mostly online presence that could quickly be moved if necessary.  On this point, audiences — citizens — have a role to play as well.  There are technological work-arounds for most kinds of internet censorship.  It’s up to us as participants in a free society to stay familiar with them.

These “mini-media” occupy a golden space between blogs and the giant media.  They are big enough to do serious reporting on events relevant to their chosen areas of focus, while small enough to avoid the financial and political pressures and the concerns about access that water down the MSM.  Not being owned by some giant corporation, they are free of centralized control.  They often get a substantial part of their revenue from reader donations, making them less (or not at all) dependent on advertising.  This does raise the risk that they will ultimately come to fear offending readers, but there are abundant examples showing that the distortions and pressures created by advertisers pose a far greater threat of watering down coverage.  And everyone needs to cover costs somehow.  Those sites whose content you value are well worthy of your donation dollars, if you can afford it.  Such independent, decentralized, aggressive, small-scale journalism is today’s truest heir to the pull-no-punches free press of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Those of us who value a free society need to help it survive.