ABC, AP, and PBS: Where is the Liberty in Liberty of the Press?


Let’s start with Jonathan Karl’s unacceptable response to printing fabricated lies obtained from Republicans.

ABC’s Karl expresses ‘regret’ over false Benghazi report – The Maddow Blog

Now, who is Karl serving? Is it the public? No. He is serving his Republican source. Contrary to that journalistic standard of not revealing confidential sources, I ask: are there instances where sources should be revealed? I think so. This is one of those instances. Journalists continually insist the only way to maintain their integrity and their special status in our democracy is their ability to keep their sources confidential. Perhaps this is a general truism. Yet, does that remain always true? I think not.

In the Age of Reason, Thomas Paine discussed Liberty of the Press saying:

“Nothing is more common with printers, especially of newspapers, than the continual cry of the Liberty of the Press, as if because they are printers they are to have more privileges than other people. As the term Liberty of the Press is adopted in this country without being understood, I will state the origin of it, and show what it means. The term comes from England, and the case was as follows:

Prior to what is in England called the Revolution, which was in 1688, no work could be published in that country without first obtaining the permission of an officer appointed by the government for inspecting works intended for publication. The same was the case in France, except that in France there were forty who were called Censors, and in England there was but one, called Imprimateur.

At the Revolution, the office of Imprimateur was abolished, and as works could then be published without first obtaining the permission of the government officer, the press was, in consequence of that abolition, said to be free, and it was from this circumstance that the term Liberty of the Press arose.” 

Liberty of the Press has nothing at all to do with modern journalism’s maxim of “integrity” based on “confidentiality of sources.” Jonathan Karl should reveal his source. It is in the public interest for him to expose those Republicans who attempted to undermine the presidency of the United States. If Karl were a journalist with integrity, he would do so. Until he does he’s an unethical journalist colluding with the government to undermine the government. Journalists doing the government’s bidding to destabilize the government. There’s the breaking story.

But what about AP? Is the AP source different? The same? Should AP give up its government source? AP and its source potentially threatened national security. Until we know more, the AP story can’t be adequately analyzed. In the meanwhile, we can examine the intersection between national security and responsible journalism. Across the board, journalists dismiss the idea that putting operatives in the field and the American people at risk as a “canard,” claiming it a pretext for stifling the press. This we read time and again since the AP/DOJ story broke. However, responsible investigative journalism can distinguish between landing a story and exploiting one or investigating further, or running with a single source or confirming a story with more than one. Then again, investigative journalism isn’t the standard in today’s media. It’s the exception.

The AP case prompts the question: Should the public incessantly scrutinize everything the government does? And by extension everything public employees do? I think not.  Transparency is one thing. We need more transparency in a number of areas. But we’ve seen it used as a pretext for intimidating public employees and subverting the public sector. We’ve seen oversight transformed into a tyrannical weapon. We’ve also seen Congressional Republicans on more than one occasion breach national security during their irresponsible scandal mongering. The post-911 legacy of misusing national security as an excuse for overreach is undeniable. At the same time, if we the people revere freedom of the press, we must ask ourselves, what precisely is it that is to be revered in our present-day press? Our press is as corrupted and dysfunctional as our government.

Two more remarks from Paine’s Liberty of the Press:

The writer of this remembers a remark made to him by Mr. Jefferson concerning the English newspapers, which at that time, 1787, while Mr. Jefferson was Minister at Paris, were most vulgarly abusive. The remark applies with equal force to the Federal papers of America. The remark was, that “the licentiousness of the press produces the same effect as the restraint of the press was intended to do, if the restraint was to prevent things being told, and the licentiousness of the press prevents things being believed when they are told.” 


Whoever has made observation on the characters of nations will find it generally true that the manners of a nation, or of a party, can be better ascertained from the character of its press than from any other public circumstance. If its press is licentious, its manners are not good. Nobody believes a common liar, or a common defamer.”

And finally PBS, A Case in point:

Jane Mayer: How Far Did PBS Go to Avoid Offending a Sponsor? : The New Yorker

The government isn’t the only threatening entity to Liberty of the Press. I would submit that government intrusion doesn’t hold a candle to what Mayer reveals. Let  us remember, too, that the press is not now what it was in the 18th Century. “Journalism” in the 18th Century wasn’t a mass conglomerate industry as it is today. Today we must unfortunately consider Liberty of the Press in terms of Liberty of the Press Industry. And we the people are afforded no protections of Press Liberty from the Press Industry.

For all the bandying of the “chilling effect” posed by the DOJ seizing AP phone records, the most chilling threat to Liberty of the Press has occurred at PBS. And, most notably, it wasn’t the government but one powerful individual that stifled independent journalism.


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10 thoughts on “ABC, AP, and PBS: Where is the Liberty in Liberty of the Press?

  1. If you poled America on her faith in the veracity of the press, I would estimate a 60-80% negative response. Some would say leaning left, some leaning right. The question is, what to do about it?

    As you say, PJ, the press is a conglomerate industry. It is ostensibly in business to make money, but I maintain that it is also in business to shape public opinion. And because it is composed of corporations, the press itself promotes and therefore contributes to the influence of money, domestic or foreign, in our politics.

    To prevent a complete takeover of the United States by international corporate power, if it hasn’t happened already, our government must have the ability to reject all corporate influence that is not in the public good. This means strong regulatory power and that too evokes a 60-80% negative reaction among US citizens.

    1. Catkin,

      Quite right. Not only is media a profit-industry, but its primary concern is shaping public opinion. This is, in fact, the central feature of Liberty of the Press. Abolishing the office of Imprimateur means that government, for the most part, no longer defines discourse or determines what is appropriate for discussion. The critical question, then: Does the government have any authority to control what makes it into print? I think it does, but the scope of that authority is limited to issues of national security. It is entirely inappropriate for the press to decide what is or what is not a matter of national security, and it is entirely inappropriate for the Press to consider matters of national security “newsworthy” items fit for print at their discretion. To that extent only, should the government act as any kind of Imprimateur – in my opinion. The DOJ, for the most part, doesn’t function as Imprimateur. The same cannot be said for what has happened at PBS. PBS does have an imprimateur.

      As to the business of media conglomeration – at the moment, even though the media industry as a whole is doing extremely well (it continues to increase in profitability); journalism, but more importantly, investigative journalism is not doing well, nor has it been well for decades. I think the reason is the pursuit of profit and journalism are entirely incompatible. The reduction of investigative journalism among news agencies is first and foremost a financial decision. One possible solution to the problem is removing some aspect of journalism from the private sphere and placing it in the public trust – literally and symbolically where it belongs through government funded media that operates in the way PBS doesn’t. Perhaps by literally establishing a public trust that sets the standards or the pace, if you will, for high quality investigative journalism, set apart from private sector media and news agencies. Endowing it with a separate mission in not responding to the 24/7 news cycle (another foe of investigative journalism). One thing is certain, if our democracy depends upon vibrant journalism, turning over our democracy to “private trust” in the private sector is misguided and a grave mistake. The decentralized “free” market model certainly hasn’t improved journalism. It has, in fact, devoured it. Establishing public sector journalism could possibly mean public reclamation of PBS by rescuing it from the jaws of predatory philanthropy. How to do it would be a matter of debate and of getting progressive legislators interested in prioritizing it.

      I don’t have any qualms concerning government monopolies of critical industries. I would include investigative journalism in the category of critical industry that government should subsidize and support.

      To your point on America’s faith in the press, like America’s faith in Congress, it is at an all time low:

      To answer your question regarding what to do about reviving faith in the press, I’d say set a standard for high quality, critical journalism. I don’t think the wisest choice is waiting for the “private sector” to figure it out on its own. I think publicly funded, public sector journalism of the highest calibre is the only way to set the standard.

      I agree: our government must have the ability to regulate all corporate interest that does not serve the public good. A complete U.S. takeover by corporate power? That sad state of affairs has already happened – precisely why this nation is in precipitous decline.

      1. PBS did well until budget cuts forced them to depend on fund raising. The News Hour provided an in-depth look at issues the private media spent sensationalizing during the week. Children’s programs were saner, more educational and just as entertaining, if not more so.

        It’s the same with the IRS, the DOJ and other agencies under criticism by the GOP today. The GOP guts the agency, as Reagan so famously did to the Air Traffic Controllers, in the guise of more accountability and fiscal responsibility, and then looks for cracks when the opposition is in charge.

        Progressives are simply not giving these strategists enough credit. G.W. Bush/Cheney would never have been able to take us into a pre-emptive war without the strategic direction of Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and his White House Staff.

        If we want good government, we have to fund it. The GOP certainly will not. Their backers are feeding off the lack of Healthcare efficiency, fundraising for humanitarian causes, a non-existent energy policy, lack of financial regulation, and are actively going after the entire education program.

        The reason these policies can’t be addressed by government according to the GOP is always the inefficiency, economic decline and lack of Government revenue promulgated by the GOP’s own policies.

        1. PBS gets just 15 percent of its budget from the government, and NPR just 2 percent. You would think government assistance would make it less independent because even at that level, it has to pander to government for funding, thus it would not want to present anything too critical of said government.

          Plenty of rich liberals listen to NPR. I wonder how many chip in even a buck when the coffers come calling.

          It is downright crazy that you blame the IRS and DOJ scandals on the fact that they are not funded ENOUGH. If anything it should show you that government has too MUCH power.

          1. FMSN,

            Neither the IRS nor the DOJ actions are scandals. It’s downright crazy for you to jump on the bandwagon so quickly. See tomorrow’s post on the IRS for more details :).

            As to pandering, you misidentify it not only in the case of PBS/NPR but in the role of government altogether.

            PBS/NPR currently operate under a system of patronage with private sector benefactors upon which it is beholden, and for which it must beg and mollycoddle in order to receive favor. If it does not it will potentially lose funding. It is an impermanent relationship that can be terminated at any time for any reason by the patron if the interests and demands of the patron are not guaranteed. Patronage, by the way, was one system the Founders sought to abolish. This is a dependency relationship that bends to the will of the benefactor. A legislative Act is not synonymous with benefaction in any universe known to man. The very notion is absurd and irrational. By your reasoning you are a government agent beholden to the government’s will if you receive a tax return. By the same token, any law enacted by the government would be an act of patronage and any citizen benefiting from that law subservient to the legislators/executives that passed the law. I normally don’t like swearing, but in this case I’m compelled to respond: FMSN, your assertion is bat-shit crazy. Forgive my language.

            PBS/NPR exist due to the Public Service Broadcasting Act. Unlike the unstable patronage system, this is a legislative guarantee enacted within a system of a republican democracy that ostensibly carries with it the “full faith and credit of the government” so to speak. The two are not the same. This also means that PBS was created to serve the public interest exclusively. Its interest will never alter – unlike the vagaries of private sector patronage.

            A reminder:

            “It is in the public interest to encourage the growth and development of public radio and television broadcasting, including the use of such media for instructional, educational, and cultural purposes…. it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to complement, assist, and support a national policy that will most effectively make public telecommunications services available to all citizens of the United States.”

            The bulk of its purpose is near identical to Thomas Jefferson’s hope for universal education.

            You make this remark: “You would think government assistance would make it less independent…” To this, I reply thus: You would think so if you didn’t rely on empiricism or flawed ideological narratives. The empirical reality is that prior to being subverted and defunded, PBS/NPR led the nation’s media with the highest standards of critical commentary and original reporting in journalism, which never shied away from criticizing the government (because it operated under its mandate – to serve the interest of the people). It also produced the highest quality cultural programming. It demonstrably achieved its educational goals. In short, it was highly successful and was never compromised because it did not exist in a system of patronage.

            To your other point: The IRS situation is directly related to defunding and understaffing. The DOJ situation hasn’t anything to do with funding. So your conclusion that both correlate to too much government power lacks coherence. That means, FMSN, your conclusion is illogical and doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. One might even say irrational since you did not derive your conclusion by rational means. It’s unclear by what means you derived it other than perhaps a prefabricated conclusion, “a once and always” and “one-size-fits-all” answer to everything pertaining to government. Good government isn’t small, FMSN. Tyrannical governments are small. Dictatorial governments are small. But good government is not small, and good government needs to be funded. You’d be wise to remember that George Washington in his farewell address made this very clear. It was his dire warning as a matter of fact. He warned against psychotic opposition to taxation and taxes, and his other major caveat was avoiding factionalism lest the republic fail. One way to ensure good government and revitalize our crumbling democracy is strengthening the Public Broadcasting Service by rescuing it from patronage and placing it back where it belongs – in the hands of the people, funded by the people.

  2. Ultimately a silly post, conflating the two issues of press freedom and press ethics. Your interest and my interest may be that “Jonathan Karl should reveal his post”. But the nation’s interest and all our interest is whether Jonathan Karl will be MADE to reveal his source – like the Associated Press and Fox News are currently revealing their sources – through government action, police-state tactics. Whether Karl reveals his source has nothing to do with freedom (liberty) of the press. Whether Karl is MADE to reveal his source has everything to do with it.

    Ultimately, the question is whether the administration or Congress decide that well, yeah, they better make a law to abridge freedom of the press.

    1. Wanda,

      Liberty of the Press refers precisely to what Paine described – “freedom from prior restraint.” Our press currently has that freedom. There is no government grand-editor pre-screening every article and editorial before it goes to print. “Freedom from prior restraint” pertained to more than simply journalism, but all print materials, cultural materials, poetry, essays, and also performance media – like plays. Press means press as in printing press – as in printers – as in printed matter, not just journalism. How modern day journalism has construed their desire to keep their sources secret does not comport with the origins of Press Liberty. That the term has been narrowed to mean only journalism isn’t accurate.

      As Paine also pointed out, the intent of Liberty of the Press was not to create a special class of persons who are somehow different than anyone else – those who may simply lie and deceive at will. Nor does Press “Liberty” mean Press “Libertine” – the Bill of Rights isn’t a free pass for one to do whatever one pleases. Like every other aspect of the Constitution, rights have contours and limitations. The nation’s interest is best served by Jonathan Karl revealing his source. The public deserves to know who it is that attempted to deceive the public by deliberately falsifying White House emails. If Jonathan Karl doesn’t reveal his source he isn’t serving the public. He is serving his own interest and the interest of his source.

      The PBS account, however, is a genuine violation of the Liberty of the Press because it points to exactly what Liberty of the Press intended to prevent.

      You couldn’t be farther off the mark with your “conflation” inanity. Licentiousness of the Press and Liberty of the Press are intimately connected as Jefferson’s point makes clear. Paine discusses them together, Madison discusses them together as did the other framers. Licentiousness and Liberty could not be separated nor easily reconciled then just as now. Licentiousness does not serve the public good, and prior to Liberty of the Press a printer could be imprisoned for scandal-mongering, libel, or unsubstantiated sensationalism. Benjamin Franklin’s brother, James, was imprisoned for printing licentious material. So yes, Wanda, Press Liberty and Press Ethics are rightfully intertwined. You may have forgotten that at one time in this country it wasn’t legal for the Press to lie. Press Liberty is not unrestrained – it has thresh holds and bounds just as every other part of the Constitution has limitations. Like it or not, limitation is one of the Constitution’s primary design principles, the other is federalization. The Bill of Rights is an auxiliary component; not an element of structural design, and it has limits. Meaning, the rights within it are not immutable or monolithic or chiseled in some kind of “Founding Stone” – they may and must be abridged to suit the needs of the day. Natural rights – all rights are subject to abridging. It’s how the Constitution was designed. Let us not forget Thomas Jefferson’s commentary from 1790 – “All natural rights may be abridged or modified in their exercise by law.”

      Before you begin bandying about terms like “police state tactics” be sure you understand what a “police state” means. If you are suggesting that were Jonathan Karl or any journalism outlet compelled to reveal sources within a national security context or that seizing AP phone records amount to a police state, I recommend you return to the history books to learn what a police state really is. Your usage here is more than a bit flippant for its gravity and, quite frankly, insulting to all those who have had to bear the conditions of an actual police state. Should you choose to study in depth the rise of totalitarianism, especially Fascism and Nazism, and the sublimely effective tactic of using democratic means to subvert democracy, you’ll find that the bedrock of police states is a licentious press. You might do well to consider the reality of our own situation – perhaps you are unaware of the proposed media shield law – hardly the response of a “police state.” Hardly a tactic for compelling journalists to reveal their sources. Responsible journalists do what is in the best interest of the nation; they do not compromise national security for the purpose of breaking a story. In my view, journalists who do compromise national security should be prosecuted just as any other person who compromised national security would be prosecuted. If journalism today were a vibrant and meaningful sector perhaps this teensie weensie little violin that I play for them between my thumb and forefinger might grow to a more resonant size. But journalism has not fulfilled its purpose of stabilizing and securing our democratic republic precisely because of its licentiousness. I stress again, this democracy needs publicly funded journalism devoted to upholding the republic. The Press needs a 2nd liberation – from its private sector overlords who are unable to sustain it financially or in purpose.

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