Unfreedom of the Press is not just another book about the press. In “Levin’s finest work” (Breitbart), he shows how those entrusted with news reporting today are destroying freedom of the press from within—not through actions of government officials, but with its own abandonment of reportorial integrity and objective journalism.
With the depth of historical background for which his books are renowned, Levin takes you on a journey through the early American patriot press, which proudly promoted the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This is followed by the early decades of the Republic during which newspapers around the young country were open and transparent about their fierce allegiance to one political party or another.
It was only at the start of the Progressive Era and the 20th century that the supposed “objectivity of the press” first surfaced, leaving us where we are today: with a partisan party-press overwhelmingly aligned with a political ideology but hypocritically engaged in a massive untruth as to its real nature.
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UNFREEDOM OF THE PRESS
Unfreedom of the Press is about how those entrusted with news reporting in the modern media are destroying freedom of the press from within: not government oppression or suppression, not President Donald Trump’s finger-pointing, but present-day news- rooms and journalists. Indeed, social activism, progressive group- think, Democratic Party partisanship, opinion and propaganda passed off as news, the staging of pseudo-events, self-censorship, bias by omission, and outright falsehoods are too often substituting for old-fashioned, objective fact gathering and news reporting. A self-perpetuating and reinforcing mindset has replaced independent and impartial thinking. And the American people know it. Thus the credibility of the mass media has never been lower.
This book could easily have been ten times its current length, but that would make it unreadable for most. Nonetheless, much ground is covered and research undertaken, and many authors and scholars consulted, as the history of the American press and the evidence of its decades-long demise are carefully examined. The purpose of Unfreedom of the Press is to jump-start a long-overdue and hopefully productive dialogue among the American citizenry on how best to deal with the complicated and complex issue of the media’s collapsing role as a bulwark of liberty, the civil society, and republicanism, ranging from the early newspapers and pamphlets promoting the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to the subsequent party-press and transparent allegiance to one party or the other, to the progressive approach of so-called professional reporting, and the ideologically driven advocacy press of today.
Unlike the early patriot press, today’s newsrooms and journalists are mostly hostile to America’s founding principles, traditions, and institutions. They do not promote free speech and press freedom, despite their self-serving and self-righteous claims. Indeed, they serve as societal filters attempting to enforce uniformity of thought and social and political activism centered on the progressive ideology and agenda. Issues, events, groups, and individuals that do not fit the narrative are dismissed or diminished; those that do fit the narrative are elevated and celebrated. Of course, this paradigm greatly influences the culture, the government, and the national psyche. It defines a media-created “reality” whether or not it has a basis in true reality, around which individuals organize their thoughts, beliefs, and, in some cases, their lives.
Yet there is mystery and opacity that surround all of it. And if one dares to question or criticize the motives and work product of this enterprise or aspects of it—that is, the reporting by one or more newsrooms—the response is often knee-jerk and emotionally charged, with the inquirer or critic portrayed as hostile to press freedom and the collective media circling the wagons around themselves.
It bears remembering that the purpose of a free press, like the purpose of free speech, is to nurture the mind, communicate ideas, challenge ideologies, share notions, inspire creativity, and advocate and reinforce America’s founding principles—that is, to contribute to a vigorous, productive, healthy, and happy individual and to a well-functioning civil society and republic. Moreover, the media are to expose official actions aimed at squelching speech and communication. But when the media function as a propaganda tool for a single political party and ideology, they not only destroy their own purpose but threaten the existence of a free republic.
It is surely not for the government to control the press, and yet the press seems incapable of policing itself. We must remember, we are not merely observers, we are the citizenry. “We the People,” for whom this nation was established and for whom it exists, “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,”1 must demand a media worthy of our great republic. And we begin the process by informing ourselves about those institutions and individuals (and their practices and standards) who, by their own anointment, proclaim the high-minded obligation of informing us.
ONENEWS AS POLITICAL AND IDEOLOGICAL ACTIVISM
WHAT DO WE mean by a “free press,” “press,” or “freedom of the press”?
What is the purpose of a free press? Is it to report information?
What kind of information? Is it to interpret or analyze information?
What is “the news”? How are decisions made about what is newsworthy and what is not?
What is a “news organization”? One person (a blogger), a group of people (a weekly newspaper), a corporate conglomerate (a television network)?
What is a “journalist”? What qualifies someone as a journalist? Experience, education, position, self-identification?
What is the job of a journalist? Is journalism a profession?
Are there standards?
Are journalists able to be “fair” or “objective”?
What is the purpose of reporting? To reinforce the founding and fundamental principles of the republic? To challenge public officials and authority? To give voice to certain individuals, groups, and causes? To influence politics and policy? To alter the status quo of a society? To promote “the common good” of the community?
What is the common good? Who decides?
What is the difference between freedom of the press and “free speech”? And does the current media revolution, spurred by technological advances such as the internet and social media, change any of this?
Do these questions even matter anymore to news outlets? The questions are rarely asked today let alone rationally discussed. They are infrequently the subject of open or public media circumspection or focused and sustained national debate. It seems “the media” are loath to investigate or explore “the media.” However, when the conduct of the media is questioned as biased, politically partisan, or otherwise irresponsible, they insist that they are of one mission: fidelity to the news and all that stems from it—protecting society from autocratic government, defending freedom of the press, and contributing to societal civility and justice. Moreover, they typically claim to pursue and report the news free from any personal or political agenda.
Is that true of the modern media?
More than seventy years ago, there was a serious self-examination of the media. The Commission on Freedom of the Press (also known as the Hutchins Commission) was organized in 1942 by Time and Life magazine publisher Henry Luce to explore whether freedom of the press was in danger and the proper function of the media in a modern democracy. Its report was issued in 1947 and concluded, in part, that freedom of the press was indeed in danger, and for three basic reasons: “First, the importance of the press to the people has greatly increased with the development of the press as an instrument of mass communication. At the same time the development of the press as an instrument of mass communication has greatly decreased the proportion of the people who can express their opinions and ideas through the press. Second, the few who are able to use the machinery of the press as an instrument of mass communication have not provided a service adequate to the needs of the society. Third, those who direct the machinery of the press have engaged from time to time in practices which the society condemns and which, if continued, it will inevitably undertake to regulate or control.”1
The commission warned: “The modern press itself is a new phenomenon. Its typical unit is the great agency of mass communication. These agencies can facilitate thought and discussion. They can stifle it. They can advance the progress of civilization or they can thwart it. They can debase and vulgarize mankind. They can endanger the peace of the world; they can do so accidentally, in a fit of absence of mind. They can play up or down the news and its significance, foster and feed emotions, create complacent fictions and blind spots, misuse the great words, and uphold empty slogans. Their scope and power are increasing every day as new instruments become available to them. These instruments can spread lies faster and farther than our forefathers dreamed when they enshrined the freedom of the press in the First Amendment to our Constitution.”2
The commission cautioned that “[w]ith the means of self-destruction that are now at their disposal, men must live, if they are to live at all, by self-restraint, moderation, and mutual understanding. They get their picture of one another through the press. The press can be inflammatory, sensational, and irresponsible. If it is, it and its freedom will go down in the universal catastrophe. On the other hand, the press can do its duty by the new world that is struggling to be born. It can help create a world community by giving men everywhere knowledge of the world and of one another, by promoting comprehension and appreciation of the goals of a free society that shall embrace all men.”3
Is this how the modern media conduct themselves? Self-restrained, measured, and temperate? Are the media providing knowledge and insight useful to the public and a free society, or are they obsessed with their own personal, political, and progressive predilections and piques? Have the media earned the respect and esteem of their readers, viewers, and listeners as fair and reliable purveyors of information, or are large numbers of the citizenry suspicious and distrustful of their reporting? Are the media on a trajectory of self-destruction, unofficially identifying with one political party (Democratic Party) over the other (Republican Party)?
In point of fact, most newsrooms and journalists have done a very poor job of upholding the tenets of their profession and, ultimately, have done severe damage to press freedom. Many millions of Americans do not respect them or trust them as credible, fair-minded, and unbiased news sources.