Saturday, November 20, 2010

Two Cheers for Free Speech

Jay Rockefeller, Jon Stewart, Alexis de Tocqueville and my teenage grandson combine to provoke second thoughts about the First Amendment.

In frustration, the West Virginia Senator tells a committee, "I hunger for quality news...There's a little bug inside of me which wants to get the FCC to say to FOX and to MSNBC: 'Out. Off. End. Goodbye.' It would be a big favor to political discourse; our ability to do our work here in Congress, and to the American people."

On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart goes into an over-the-top riff on Glenn Beck's campaign to prove that George Soros is plotting to overthrow the government, offering more plausible goofy proof that Beck's boss Rupert Murdoch is actually doing that.

All this comes after a call from my grandson to exchange ideas about a high-school assignment on the subject of whether there should be more regulation of TV.

For a First Amendment almost-absolutist, this brings up de Tocqueville's take in "Democracy in America" almost two centuries ago:

"I confess that I do not entertain that firm and complete attachment to the liberty of the press which is wont to be excited by things that are supremely good in their very nature. I approve of it from a consideration more of the evils it prevents than of the advantages it insures."

His reservation was that, while unfettered competition guarantees political freedom, it also fosters a low level of journalism--"vulgar" and "coarse" were the words he used.

Given the history of totalitarianism since then, we are well-advised to struggle along in this imperfect condition. Eternal banality, as well as vigilance, may be the true price of liberty.

While there is no denying that Murdoch's organs are boils on the backside of American journalism, they can't be lanced by official surgery. They can be treated only by the palliatives of better news from other sources in the hope that truth will emerge, as Supreme Court Justice Learned Hand put it, from "a multitude of tongues."

Such optimism is tempered by a new Pew Poll that shows an ill-informed electorate--fewer than half of all Americans know that Republicans won control of the House this month with one in seven believing they took over the Senate as well.

But, to Sen. Rockefeller, Jon Stewart and my grandson, I can only offer reassurance that time eventually wounds all media heels--punishing Sen. Joe McCarthy's deceptions in the 1950s, the lies of Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon in the next decades up to the flummery of Newt Gingrich at the end of the century.

American democracy is, as Barack Obama recently said, "messy," but well worth the struggle to keep absolutely free while cleaning it up as best we can as we go along.


Anonymous said...

"Eternal banality, as well as vigilance, may be the true price of liberty."

"time eventually wounds all heels"


hking said...

If people don't like a particular announcer, talk show host, or news program, they have the power of the remote. Simply, change channels or turn the television or radio off. People have the right to say and write stupid things. I have the right to ignore them. Unfortunately, some people listen to and believe fools. That too is their choice.

Christina G. said...

I WAS going to comment on "External banality, as well as vigilance, may be the true price of liberty." but I see Anonymous has beaten me to it! -