The recent spat – actually it’s turning into a spate of spats – between Donald Trump and the mainstream media, has resurrected a query I’ve had for decades. What exactly justifies freedom of the press?
The standard bromide, recall, is that democracy presupposes, and so requires, an informed electorate. But surely that, in turn, presupposes that the press is informing us? Trump’s complaint is that they’re mis-informing us. He calls this ‘fake news’. By this, of course, he means news he’d rather we not hear. But let’s put Trump aside. What about news that really is fake? Should the press be free to just make shit up?
Perhaps. But if so, that freedom can’t be justified by the bromide. Rather it’ll have to come under freedom of expression. What recommends freedom of expression to us isn’t that it aims at truth. Rather it’s that it’s cathartic for the speaker. It’s that I need to beak off about country and western music and haggis. But that doesn’t give me a right to invite myself to your dinner table so I have someone to beak off to. Freedom of the press, by contrast, is taken to entitle a reporter to access to whatever might be going on that may be of legitimate public interest. The public, we’re told, has a right to know … fill in the blank.
There’s some disagreement, even among champions of press freedom, about how liberally that blank can be filled in. The public has a right to know who some politician is handing out public contracts to, but – or at least so say I – it doesn’t have a right to know who he’s cheating on his wife with. So let’s confine ourselves to what the electorate does have a right to know because it does have a need to know.
Okay. But to know something is to believe the truth about it. One can believe something that’s false, and one can know that something is false, but one can’t know something that’s false. As Plato pointed out in the Theaetetus, knowledge is justified true belief. So, in short, the freedom to report a falsehood cannot be justified by the bromide.
The counter-argument – and it’s a good one – is that truth doesn’t wear itself on its sleeve. So we need divergent voices, some to say this, others to say that, in the hope that eventually the one will prove false and the other true. This was John Stuart Mill’s argument. MSNBC will report the claims of global warming asserters, and Fox News will report the counterclaims of global warming deniers. Seems reasonable enough. But what guarantees that the truth will emerge? Or even that a consensus will emerge, be it true or false?
So each voice is tempted – and sometimes it succeeds – to silence the other voice. Just as in some schools a teacher can’t teach creationism in her science class, in some jurisdictions, no, the press can’t conjecture that the Holocaust might be a Zionist myth. In Turkey it’s a criminal offense to assert the Armenian Genocide, while in France it’s a criminal offense to deny it. (This is why Turkish membership in the EU just ain’t gonna happen any time soon.)
Under most jurisdictions, any report, be it true or false, that’s likely to incite violent, can be censored. Truth has nothing to do with it. And whether it rationally should incite violent has less to do with it still. For example, Holocaust denial is just a “So-what?” But not unlike the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling in Butler (1992) regarding pornography – where the court ruled that the mere suggestion of justified inequality is actionable under the Charter of Rights and Freedom’s section 1 override clause – many courts in the West have ruled likewise with respect to Holocaust denial.
Note that these courts do not rule that Holocaust denial is false. That line of argument was rejected by the Supreme Court when it threw out what was, until it’s ruling in Zundel (1992), s. 181 of the Criminal Code, Canada’s false information law. So what’s actionable is not, as the bromide would have it, misinformation, but rather a threat to social peace. Or in some cases, just a threat to social compleasance.
As a good Hobbesian I’m in no position to oppose, at least in principle, governmental interference with threats to social compleasance. (I just wish it would ban country and western music and haggis.) But in acknowledging that there are grounds for censorship other than the bromide, I’m not saying the bromide can’t be a stand-alone justification for freedom of the press. I’m just insisting that where it stands alone, it has to stand on its own two feet. A reporter or interviewer who almost invariably gets it wrong – either intentionally or because she’s just too stupid to listen carefully – is not entitled to a press pass.
Ideally the press should regulate itself, as do many if not most other professions. But it’s loath to do so for fear of being accused of being in some partisan pocket. But that doesn’t mean those of us being reported on need honour an incompetent reporter’s press pass. If a politician declines an interview with an ‘unfriendly’ interviewer, he’ll be accused of censoring the press. And in some cases rightly accused. But if he can show – and often enough he can show – that a particular interviewer – usually at the editing stage – is incompetent, then he has every right to refuse her access.
I’ve given a number of public talks in the small city in which I live and teach. Small town newspapers will report on anything, including some obscure philosophy professor talking about First Century supersessionism to a group of thirty senior citizens. It’s not that our local reporter doesn’t always get it completely right. It’s that she invariably gets it completely wrong. So now I don’t do interviews. My view is that if someone wants to misrepresent me, she doesn’t need, nor is she entitled to, my cooperation.
Yes, this is a personal pet peeve. But I’ve done a little casting about and I’ve discovered that this kind of incompetence is not confined to the small town newspaper. It’s pervasive all the way up. The CBC can’t tell the difference between a ban and a boycott. During the withdrawal of pro-Serbian forces from Bosnia it captioned its pictures of these soldiers wearing balaclavas as them “hiding their shame”.
I’m not advocating any kind of centralized licensing of reporters. That would put us back behind the Iron Curtain. But I am advocating a non-governmental watchdog agency that will out those who, either intentionally or from stupidity, misreport what they’re charged with reporting, and drive them out of the profession. Right now misreporting is treated with a shrug and an “Oh well …” Do we say that about an engineer or a cruise ship captain? Far more lives hang on accurate reporting than on accurate piloting. Both the sea and the air are far more forgiving.
Politicians are expected to deceive. The press is expected to be a corrective to that deception. They are not to be complicit in that deception. Nor are they to make up shit on their own. Donald Trump makes up shit. But so do the mainstream media.
I fully understand that networks have to sell air time. So I accept that even the once-prestigious BBC has had to succumb to infotainment. So by all means give us the 106-year-old great great granny in Blackpool who can still do the Twist. But when it comes to the news – even if you’re selecting what counts as news – give us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And if you don’t know the truth – by which I mean if you don’t know that you know the truth – then shut the fuck up!