The First Amendment to the United States Constitution clearly states, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. These freedoms are considered so essential to the functioning of our democracy and the preservation of our liberty that they were enshrined in the founding document of our nation, making up the first few lines in the aptly named Bill of Rights. Following a major Supreme Court decision in 1919, later refined by subsequent cases in 1927 and 1969, some basic limitations were placed on these constitutional liberties; namely, that no one has a right to say anything in public which is likely to incite “imminent lawless action”. Together with laws against defamation, whose roots can be traced back to ancient Rome and which forbid causing “false or unjustified injury of the good reputation of another,” as well as perjury, these are pretty much the only restrictions imposed on what Americans are allowed to say in the public sphere.
This freedom to speak our minds, and to share information through print and through broadcasting, is one of the greatest achievements of our society and a testament to the wisdom and vision of our founders. As Jefferson once said, “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.” A free press is meant to be one of the strongest bulwarks against totalitarianism, for a well-informed public is not so easily mislead by what it’s told. In an age of twenty-four hour cable news, when most Americans rely on the talking heads that appear on their televisions as their main source of information about what’s happening in the country and in the world at large, it would seem that these fundamental rights and restrictions on speech would apply equally, if not more stringently, to media organizations and to the large corporations who now own them. Sadly, such is not the case.
Following a Florida court decision in 2003, in which Fox News was sued by a former reporter who had been fired for refusing to fabricate misinformation in a report on hormone-adulterated milk, the law has sided with corporate interests in ruling that news providers are not legally required to be truthful in the stories they disseminate to the public. This seems to defy common sense and fly in the face of all ethical principles, but there you have it. As a result of this court case, we as a nation have entered a brave new world of lies and doublespeak which would appear to come straight out of the playbook of Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Reich Minister of Propaganda under Hitler, or that of the fictional Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Pundits and news anchors can now look straight into the camera and without so much as a blush or twinge of bad conscience, tell the American people that our president is a socialist Muslim who wasn’t born in the U.S.; that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was personally responsible for the 9-11 attacks – all of which are patently false and an insult to the intelligence of the people. Then again, as Goebbels asserted, “It is not propaganda’s task to be intelligent, its task is to lead to success.”
One might think that the FCC would step in and use their power over the airwaves to preserve the rights and interests of the people who they are commissioned to serve. Instead, they focus the bulk of their energies on levying massive fines against entertainers who inadvertently let slip an f-bomb or a briefly exposed nipple – actions intended to distract the public from their increasingly cozy relationship with the handful of large, powerful corporations who, in recent decades, have come to control nearly all of the magazines, newspapers, and television and radio stations in the country.
How can America’s citizens be expected to gather quality, accurate information about the happenings of our nation if the main providers of this information have a vested interest in suppressing inconvenient truths that might affect the bottom line of their shareholders? How can we take power back from these propagandists and restore the truth and integrity that are the foundations of our democracy? Write your congressman and tell them how you feel. Boycott the major cable news channels and free yourself from exposure to the advertising that drives their agenda. Join the Occupy protesters on the streets of your hometown and let your voice be heard!