The Troubles of Journalism: A Critical Look at What's Right and Wrong with the Press

By William A. Hachten | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Freedom of the Press: Theory and Values

The First Amendment reads more like a dream than a law, and no other country, as far as I know, has been crazy enough to include such a dream among its fundamental legal documents. I defend it because it has been so successful for two centuries in preserving our freedom and increasing our vitality, knowing that all arguments in support of it are certain to sound absurd.

-- Kurt Vonnegut ( 1982)

Americans have long had lively, irreverent, rambunctious, and scurrilous newspapers, often disrespectful of authority and at times outrageous. People often despise newspapers, but they still value their right to freedom of the press.

Thomas Jefferson had strong and ambivalent feelings about the press, as his quoted words indicate: "Newspapers serve to carry off noxious vapors and smoke" (p. 85), and later, "Nothing can be believed which is seen in a newspaper" (p. 85). In addition, "The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors" ( Rafferty, 1975, p. 26).

And yet, our most intellectual of presidents also wrote these words: "When the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe" (p. 61), and "No government ought to be without censors; and where the press is free none ever will" (p. 61), "The press is the best instrument for enlightening the mind of man, and improving him as a rational, moral, and social being" ( Rafferty, 1975, p. 61).

Jefferson's ambivalence has been shared by other leaders because newspapers can sometimes be excellent, even indispensable to our political

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