Either We Have a Free Press or We Don't
In today's Wa Po, David Ignatius ponders the dilemma of how journalists should deal with information allegedly linked to national security:
We journalists usually try to argue that we have carefully weighed the pros and cons and believe that the public benefit of disclosure outweighs any potential harm. The problem is that we aren't fully qualified to make those judgments.True. But right-wing Republicans, control freaks, and others who want to undermine freedom of the press rarely consider the question: What is the alternative? If journalists aren't going to decide what they should or shouldn't print, who will?
Do we want the government making those decisions? It's patently obvious what would happen then: The administration will happily trumpet any news it thinks is politically beneficial while covering up or lying about any news it fears will hurt them politically. (And this is more or less true no matter what party happens to be in power.) In short order, people will learn not to believe anything in the news--which of course is exactly what happens in totalitarian states where the media are controlled by the government. Does anyone think this would be a desirable state of affairs, or an improvement over the current situation?
And ultimately, these are the only two options--to let journalists run their own shops, or to hand control of the media over to government. In the long run, there are no in-between or compromise positions. Sometimes you hear people talk about creating some sort of "board" or "institute" or "foundation" that will issue "guidelines" or "directives" or "rulings" limiting press freedom. But this just kicks the problem of ultimate control down the road a few yards. If this "board" is fundamentally answerable to the newspapers and media companies themselves--and relatively immune to government pressure--then we have a variation on today's system, only one with less diversity and variety. Conversely, if the board is fundamentally under the government's thumb, then we are simply handing over control of the press to the administration, only with a fig leaf of phony independence.
In one sense Ignatius is right--journalists aren't "fully qualified" to make all-wise decisions about publishing information related to national security. But neither is anyone else--and especially not our self-interested, politically-motivated government leaders themselves. In the end, there's really no viable alternative to having the press run by . . . yes, the press.
Tags: David Ignatius, freedom of the press, national security