Jackson, Freedom of the press: who’s the enemy?

Gassed, shot at with rubber bullets, threatened at the points of guns, taken into detention, hassled for taking photos, prosecuted for true stories — and the corporate mainstream press hardly ever minded. It colors this reporter’s attitudes. Archive photo by Eric Jackson.

Who’s the enemy? Whose enemy?

by Eric Jackson

Politicians who incessantly lie dislike those who contradict them about factual matters. That’s the gist of Donald Trump’s complaint.

That the man has a following is largely a product of people using certain media — this medium, that medium, the other medium but certainly not any conspiratorial singular “media,” something that rightfully does not exist in the English language — to spread disinformation.

Not “misinformation,” which is unintended error. Nor even a slant, which is the choice, interpretation and ordering of facts to make a point, fair or unfair as it may be, generally a point consistent with a particular world view. From championing the “Birther” fraud to the screeds of all those Russian bots and troll, Trump rode into office on a wave of lies.

From a Gringo perspective, do we want to get into worship of the purportedly holy framers of the US Constitution, and in our “originalism” pontificate on what they meant about the press? The folks who do this are generally fools.

First of all, there were no reporters at the Constitutional Convention, although one of the great founding figures of American journalism, Benjamin Franklin, was there as one of the main protagonists. It was held behind closed doors, with delegates bound by an oath of secrecy about the proceedings.

Second, there was no such thing as a media corporation at that time. There wasn’t even the business corporation as we would know it. Corporations were rare, limited purpose, state-chartered entities in an economy of sole proprietorships and business partnerships.

Third, the original document didn’t even mention freedom of speech, the press, or peaceful assembly. But the American people of that time would not stand for such an omission. Thus the first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights, had to be passed to get the Constitution ratified. The First Amendment freedom of the press was by popular demand, not the design of the Constitution’s framers. And that popular demand? It was rooted in what had become a custom in the American colonies well before they separated from England. Publish the truth and it could not be libel, the Americans said, contrary to what was the law back in the British Isles at the time.

So a republic was born, with this class of sole proprietors of varying ethics publishing little pamphlets, broadsheets and posters on their rudimentary little presses. The American press of the late 18th and early 19th century was on the whole highly partisan. Federalist rags ran scurrilous — and TRUE — tales about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. Democrat rags compared John Adams to the by then quite mad King George III. Founding generations of American sickies read both sides and giggled. The republic survived.

A slick move by one of the men who convinced America to ratify the Constitution — Alexander Hamilton — gave rise to the business corporation as we know it. The Industrial Revolution — large and rapid printing presses, railroads and telegraphs — created the basis for large media corporations of national scope, and the technological changes kept coming.

There were unscrupulous people, and those who thought of themselves and their actions in the holiest of terms, who used their freedom of the press to incite wars, genocide or rebellion. As the First Amendment applied only to the federal government (“Congress shall make no law…”) many states in the run-up to the Civil War did make laws against the press, in particular slave states prohibiting abolitionist literature. Those exercising freedom of the press increasingly advocated war, genocide and rebellion, and some 600,000 people were killed in a conflict that among other things, gave rise to the 14th Amendment’s protection of fundamental freedoms from the states’ actions.

After that war industrial combines arose, and among the “robber barons” were the captains of the news industry of that time. Their business rested on advertising and among the techniques that the American ad agencies pioneered was The Big Lie — the lie so endlessly repeated that people ended up believing that it was true. It was a great way to sell cigarettes, or guns, or as German activists of the 20s and 30s discovered, racist politics.

After the war and crimes incited by THAT, one of Germany’s media barons, Der Sturmer publisher Julius Streicher, was tried at Nuremberg and hanged as an enemy of all humanity.

Streicher well deserved it. But an activist from the American Indian Movement whom I met at a gathering of people seeking amnesty for political prisoners in the USA told me that Americans were worse: “The Nazis tried to hide what they were doing. The Americans massacred our people and they put it on movie and television screens to entertain kids.”

The Cold War came and went, and in the course of it so many of the Nuremberg Principles became dead letters. But in the aftermath of massacres in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, it was decided that the ban on incitement of genocide is still good law, as infrequently as it gets enforced.

The media corporations went through so many of the changes of industrial and technological progress, giving its main proprietors greater powers to judiciously use of arrogantly abuse, giving rise to new codes of ethics, giving voices to new forces good and evil. One of the things that happened along the way was a conflation of “the press” with “media corporations,” as in the First Amendment was no longer considered an individual right, a guarantee that every individual could gather and publish information and opinions, but as an exclusive property of the large media corporations. So that the hippie selling the underground newspaper on the street could be hassled or arrested. So that the muckraker operating on a shoestring could be excluded as a “real journalist” and prosecuted as a spy. So that the reporter not embedded among soldiers or police could be treated as an enemy of the state. So that for a price, pompous criminal lawyers could prosecute journalists on behalf of pompous fraud artists whom the journalists exposed, and the corporate mainstream media would remain silent because those being prosecuted, not being employed by some oligarch’s medium, could by definition not be “real journalists.”

Some of these are realities I have lived, both in the United States and in Panama.

Meanwhile, the forces of technology and economics have devastated the once masters of the press. The advertising supported model of the news business has largely collapsed. The ownership of the large media has by and large passed into the hands of tycoons from other industries, many of whom know and care little about the ethics or history but very much wish to suppress any unflattering coverage of their businesses or those companies’ partners.

From the ragtag individuals who owned crude printing presses in the early days of the USA, we are back to the ragtag individuals who own computers and cameras and publish online today. Yeah, Jeff Bezos and Carlos Slim will make the distinctions about who is the “real press,” but online nazis, many of them Russian impostors, beat them and the American people with online Big Lie campaigns in 2016. And now Donald Trump would move in for the kill.

There are political adversaries who legitimately use mass communication media to further their causes. Then there are the often pseudonymous purveyors of disinformation, defamation and violent hatreds that can’t be supported by any truthful argument. These are the enemies of the people and by and large they are in Donald Trump’s camp. How did Spain’s center-right “newspaper of record,” El Pais, just put it about one of Trump’s friends, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones? “Ultraderecha paranoica” — paranoiac ultra-rightist, and by the way “incendiary” and “offensive.”

But “for balance” and business interests will establishment elites now come after me?

So yes, I condemn what Trump is doing and saying against the press, but I do not worship at the media barons’ altar. I just use my freedom of the press.

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