Dude, Where's My Freedom of the Press?

Column by Travis Irvine.

Exclusive to STR

These are the times that try journalists’ souls. While Thomas Paine was the American patriot who proved the power of the press, it was arguably the penman of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, who truly understood and fought for freedom of the press. “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press,” Jefferson once wrote. “And that cannot be limited without being lost.” He also wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” No wonder a statue of ol’ Tommy J. stands in front of my alma mater, the Columbia University School of Journalism – he is a huge reason journalists are here.

The events of the past few months in regards to freedom of the press in the U.S. – as well as abroad – have been harrowing for journalists and friends of the press alike. The recent, and highly unusual, detainment of David Miranda (the partner of The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald), in addition to the subsequent “destruction” of The Guardian’s classified NSA files, are true signs of the times. They are not, I hope, signs of things to come. However, though I am usually your typical happy-go-lucky optimist, even I have to admit that things do not look good.

For example, take a recent threat to the press from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who proposed an amendment to a media shield law that would only protect paid journalists for what they say or write. This would effectively, as the Senator from California must surely know, remove press protections for the rising amount of citizen journalists and bloggers who, thanks to the Interwebs, can take photos/videos, write blogs about events and post them without getting fat paychecks from news corporations. These citizen journalists provided a bulk of the coverage during the Occupy Wall Street movement, and – as Feinstein must also surely know – were a huge pain in the ass to the establishment: not only to “reputable” news sources, but to police engaging in abusive and abrasive “crowd control” tactics.

Add to this a slew of other recent troubling revelations, like how the CIA used to gather records on Noam Chomsky, a longtime and relatively harmless critic of U.S. foreign policy. Or that, according to Edward Snowden, the U.S. government targeted journalists who were critical of the government in the months after 9/11. Or that the Secret Service was investigating Adam Schwartz, the co-founder of Reddit and free information activist, before he killed himself in January. Or that the Department of Justice can now prosecute any journalist it wants thanks to the recent ruling in the James Risen case. Or that the recently deceased Buzzfeed journalist, Michael Hastings, was doing a story on the new head of the CIA, John Brennan, when the journalist’s car hit a tree in L.A. and exploded. While nothing has been proven yet about Hasting’s death, when a journalist investigates the head of the CIA and his car blows up, it’s enough to make you think, “Hmmm,” but also, “Shit!” It’s quite the contrast from the last time a journalist did a story on the head of the CIA and she ended up sleeping with him. Hubba hubba! Now that’s freedom of the press, baby.

No wonder a former chief counsel to The New York Times said Obama is worse for press freedom than former President Richard Nixon. Or for that matter, George W. Bush. One of my most vivid memories from my time at Columbia Journalism School was when, to celebrate our approaching graduation, the school treated us to a cruise around Manhattan – down the East River, past Wall Street, around the Statue of Liberty and back. Apparently it’s been a tradition in the school for some time. But during that particular evening in May 2012, the waterway between Lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn was blocked off by the police because President Obama was visiting Wall Street. Due to these security procedures, our cruise ship had to turn around, and the Columbia Journalism School Class of 2012 did not get to see the Statue of Liberty. Though I was plenty hopped up on a healthy amount of libations at the time, the symbolism of that moment was not and never will be lost on me.

Freedom of the press is an essential part of our free society to ensure that we have an educated and informed electorate. Media outlets, however big or small, are the multifaceted voice box of the populace, and to spy on them, limit them or attempt to intimidate them is a disservice to the governed, especially when the governed need pertinent information to understand their government. If the Western governments of the world are not going to allow journalists to freely inform the public, then maybe it’s time for us to remember a few more of Jefferson’s words, that “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.” Hubba hubba! Now that’s freedom of the press, baby.

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Travis Irvine's picture
Columns on STR: 6

Travis Irvine is a stand-up comedian, independent filmmaker and unsuccessful politician. His campaign and comedy videos have been featured on The Jay Leno Show, PBS’s NewsHour, The Huffington Post and Funny Or Die. He was also once on The People's Court. A recent graduate of Columbia University's School of Journalism, he currently lives and performs in New York City.



Samarami's picture

Travis, you've listed a relatively thorough document of reasons why one must never, never look to political authority for "freedom". Of anything. A man by the name of Jefferson's political spoutings of 200+ years ago to the contrary, no group of psychopaths anywhere, at any time, grouped into that abstraction called "government", have, can or will grant or protect or sustain "freedom".

Particularly "freedom-of-the-press".

The phrase, in fact, when you look at it closely and honestly, is a contradiction in terms. It implies there is someone, somewhere who can (and will) grant and/or protect "freedom-of-the-press". Oh, I know: Jefferson is the idol of conservatives and "libertarians" alike for all his freedom-sounding utterances. And he may at times have been sincere, though I rather doubt it.

But Jefferson was a politician. Politicians -- those who connive and prevaricate most convincingly to the hoi polloi -- exchange those lies for "votes". This helps to create the illusion of state legitimacy.

    "...The State is a monopoly on legitimate violence, and legitimacy is the only thing distinguishing a tax collector from a pickpocket, a police officer from a vigilante, or a soldier from a paid murderer. Legitimacy is an illusion in the mind without which the State does not even exist..." (thanks, Davi Barker)

"Elections" are rarely "won" by nice people. I would say "never", but Dr. Ron Paul may be a dubious exception.

So there is absolutely no percentage for politicians to really, really believe in or stand up for "freedom-of-the-press". Since the state is a cancerous condition, its obvious first metastasis infects public "media". It is only natural the slogan "freedom-of-the-press" be promoted as a meme to camouflage war, theft, murder and all other political machinations. How else would they promote the "support-'our'-troops" malarkey in any kind of acceptable, exciting manner?

I'm glad you're posting here at STR, Travis. Because STR is free, the internet is relatively free, but none remunerate well for the broadcast of ideas of liberty. I'm truly sorry that is the state of affairs at this moment in time.

The "free-press" deck is stacked.


Paul's picture

Sam's right. When one country is invaded by another, the first thing that is done is that the media of the invaded country are grabbed and controlled - and for good reason. So it's a bit much to imagine that the same mentality does not also operate where no invasion is taking place. The media must be controlled by the government.

That's why the Internet is such a rare animal. They don't control it (although they are doing everything they can to "fix" that state of affairs).

Mainstream media lost what little respect I had for them when they almost uniformly came out in support of the McCain-Feingold campaign law. Of course the law had exceptions for "established" media. I now refer to them as the "Ministry of Propaganda". Is that too cynical?

BTW Jefferson also said, "It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of its benefits, than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle."