Last night on Fox, Tucker Carlson interviewed Michael Avenatti , Stormy Daniels’ lawyer. In what was either a garish display of childish antics or a hilarious and poignant critique of the subject of the interview, Tucker’s show dubbed Avenatti the “creepy porn lawyer.”
It took a lot of people by surprise, with initial reactions expressing disbelief. Look at that chyron!
For those of you who were like me, you will scratch your head when you see the word “chyron,” but I guess that’s the technical term for the little descriptive textboxes that appear on TV. So props to the chyron writer for making the rest of the world care about what a chyron is now.
Commentary on the subject ranges from “Avenatti got burned” to “Tucker crossed a line.” I personally have no opinion on that specific subject, but it gives me an opportunity to expound upon the nature of the press and the high purpose of the first amendment.
In a previous article I briefly described how many Americans, and much of the media, have this mistaken idea that the press is to be this noble guardian of objectivity. They are fixated on the notion that the press is the unbiased presenter of reality to the country.
I refrained from going into the history of the freedom of the press, but offered up an introduction to the topic. “John Stuart Mill, in his work On Liberty*, asserts that free speech is not about the propagation of simple facts, but rather the protection of opinions and ideas that glean truth from facts. He then asserts that it is protected because society may cling to incomplete ideas that need a supplement, a correction, or an outright challenge. This process cannot occur when the majority, whether through law or through groupthink, refuses to permit other views.”*
This brief introduction was sufficient for an article on Adam Schiff and broadcasting companies, but Tucker represents the epitome of a subjective press. The phrase “subjective press” shouldn’t be a bad thing.
In Shiffrin and Choper’s The First Amendment: Cases – Comments – Questions, Justice Holmes’ dissent in Abrams v. US is discussed at length. Shiffrin and Choper compare Holmes’ “market place of ideas” with a quote from Milton’s Areopagitica. Milton says “and though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” They then mention a work by Charles Lindblom. Here he says that “these institutions come to be taken for granted. Many people regard them not as institutions to be tested but as standards against which correctness of new policies and institutions can be tested. When that happens, as is common, processes of critical judgment are short-circuited.”
It is not the job of the press to filter out right, wrong, true, or false and then present what is left as the only truth. Their job is to make a case and to make their position known, lest we ascribe to them the title of "standard-bearer of truth."
In Thomas Emerson’s Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment, freedom of expression is said to be necessary for four reasons: for the protection of individual rights, for attaining truth, for civic engagement, and for balancing stability and change. To his first reason, he says, “the suppression of belief, opinion, and expression is an affront to the dignity of man, a negation of man’s essential nature. What Milton said of licensing the press is equally true of any form of restraint over expression.”
So what does that mean? Freedom of speech and press are tied into the general idea of free expression. It is the right of every person to be able to speak freely, promulgate opinions, and share those opinions in written form. Why do we do that? Because truth is only attainable when ideas are exchanged, not when one entity has established a monopoly on the flow of ideas or their content.
To say that the press may not be subjective or that they have to hide their subjectivity with a mask of objectivity, as the mainstream media does, is to strip the people of the right to be part of the free press. It necessitates and encourages opinions.
History supports this structure where the press is mainly subjective.
In Emerson, Haber, and Dorsen’s Political and Civil Rights in the United States, ample historical evidence is provided to make clear that freedom of the press was never about the simple regurgitation of facts. The entire point is to make a case, to persuade, to drive your fellow citizens to seek new or additional information. We contrast freedom of the press with the system of censorship, Star Chamber, and coercion that existed in England. Regulation existed to suppress political speech, not to prohibit objectivity. Emerson et al., relying on the words of Justice Story, convey the following information: “The art of printing soon after its introduction, we are told, was looked upon, as well in England as in other countries, as merely a matter of state, and subject to the coercion of the crown. It was therefore regulated in England by the king's proclamations, prohibitions, charters of privilege, and licenses, and finally by the decrees of the court of star chamber, which limited the number of printers and of presses which each should employ, and prohibited new publications, unless previously approved by proper licensers. On the demolition of this odious jurisdiction, in 1641, the long parliament of Charles the First, after their rupture with that prince, assumed the same powers which the star chamber exercised with respect to licensing books; and during the commonwealth (such is human frailty and the love of power even in republics!) they issued their ordinances for that purpose, founded principally upon a star chamber decree in 1637. After the restoration of Charles the Second, a statute on the same subject was passed, copied, with some few alterations, from the parliamentary ordinances. The act expired in 1679, and was revived and continued for a few years after the revolution of 1688. Many attempts were made by the government to keep it in force; but it was so strongly resisted by parliament that it expired in 1694, and has never since been revived.”
Professor Zechariah Chafee, as cited by Emerson et al., expounds upon the history given by Story. He says that the founding generation need not expressly condemn the practices of Star Chamber because it was defunct, but the first amendment would undoubtedly prohibit such conduct as the founders were well read on the subject. They did however fear the implementation of seditious libel laws. To the founding generation, free speech and free press meant the liberty to discuss public affairs. Where the people are sovereign, the people must be able to criticize government, institutions, and men in places of power. That is Chafee’s assessment of Madison’s view on the subject and it rings true when it is contrasted with the absolutist nature of a monarchy.
This may seem like it got way off topic from Tucker Carlson and the media being subjective. The entire point of this history is to show that, to the founding generation, the freedoms of press and speech were primarily concerned with the ability to be biased against those in power. We are free to criticize, free to call out, free to mock, free to expose those in government and in other places of power.
With that purpose in mind, we look at today’s media. Where did we get the idea that freedom of the press meant claiming to be objective? Is it good that news organizations have reporters who are focused on the facts and only the facts? Yes. But that is not the news we get. What we get are entities that see themselves as infallible presenters of truth with no amount of introspection that might get them to say they have a hint of bias. I expect bias, there is no use fighting it. Bias is the reason why we have a free press. We want differing views to be presented. We want to argue about what is best for the nation. We do not want to be lied to about the intentions of those “objectively” presenting the news. People mock Fox and MSNBC, but I at least appreciate the honesty in the opinion shows. Honesty in that objectivity is not the goal; the goal is to make a point, to persuade.
The press has to stop hiding behind the first amendment when criticism comes their way. The press has to stop denigrating subjectivity when it isn’t masked by objectivity. They have a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be “the press.” The freedom of the press is not the liberty to say “Hurricane Florence is hitting the east coast.” It is the liberty to say “Trump is complicit because his policies worsen climate change.” It is the freedom to say “the left is insane for blaming a storm on Trump.” It’s the liberty to be open about both of those opinions, not the liberty to insinuate one or the other while claiming to be objective.
Cut the crap, drop the façade, and embrace the bias. I at least know where Tucker stands.