“I may not approve of what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.  – attributed to Voltaire

In the wake of the American election, I was dismayed to see some attacks on the media from both the left and the right. One of my former colleagues in the television news business, a fellow who wears his left-wing credentials on his sleeve, wrote as follows:

“One last thought for now: fellow journalists, we have to own our share of this disaster. We have failed, in a dismal blaze of corporate propaganda, bullshit polls and enabling of racism, misogyny and stupidity. Time for all of us to get to work fixing that, or GTFO out of the profession.”

This in the wake of a campaign that saw the mainstream media relentlessly report on every gaffe Trump made, not just in the campaign, but almost every gaffe he ever made in his life. In an earlier post he lamented the media reporting on the FBI launching an investigation into Hillary Clinton.

My friend believes that the mainstream media should take a partisan position in an election rather than just reporting the facts, ma’am, just the facts. But as someone who has worked in the mainstream media for forty years, I can attest to the fact that the media (at least where I worked) tries to maintain a certain sense of objectivity. And once a government is in power, it acts as an informal advocate for the public; the media scrutinizes government and holds politicians’ feet to the fire.

In British Columbia where I live, the TV station I worked for was routinely condemned by the left when a left wing government was in power and routinely condemned by the right when a right wing government was in power. We were unfair to the powers that be was the common refrain. That told me, at least, that they were doing it right.

But my friend, in a fit of self-flagellation, blames the media for Trump’s victory. It is tantamount to a call for censorship – only report on news and opinion that fits into your own world view. It also assumes that the media is or ought to be a monolithic block – all of one mind – his!

Ironically, a friend on the right posted the following when Newsweek released a copy of their pre-prepared “Special Commemorative Edition” with a large picture of Hillary on the cover and the headline Madame President. The sub-head read “Hillary Clinton’s Historic Journey to the White House. He wrote:

“The “leftist mainstream media” were so desperate for Hillary Clinton victory that the Newsweek magazine published in advance a commemorative edition announcing Mrs. Clinton as the Madame President. The mainstream media can’t be trusted — they are TOTAL LEFTISTS, and the biggest enemy of liberty and civilization.”

I responded to his post as follows: “I think you’re reading too much into this. Newsweek is primarily a business, in competition with other magazines. In any business, staying ahead of the competition is important. So being first out on the market with something lends an advantage and an edge in sales. Given the polls predicted a Clinton win by a fair margin, preparing a Clinton edition ahead of time makes perfect sense. They are responding to perceived market demand.

“Also, I am not comfortable with denouncing the media as a left wing conspiracy and biased and the biggest enemy of liberty and civilization. That is just one step removed from advocating outright censorship. A free and open media is vital to freedom.”

Ironically, President-Elect Trump himself came out threatening censorship during his campaign. As Reason Magazine reported, “Trump… favors government censorship of the internet in order to suppress speech that he finds objectionable. It’s the same Trump who favors gutting libel laws in order to make it easier for him to silence journalists who write unkind things about him. It’s the same Trump who wants the government to forcibly shutter houses of worship in which people might say, read, or think unpopular things. Trump is an enemy of the First Amendment and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise.”

The point of free speech and freedom of the press is that there is no government enforced version of “truth”. Individuals and the press are free to say what they want. You can call the President an asshole in public and in print without fear of being hauled off to jail.

In the old Soviet Union, the government run newspaper spouted nothing but the party line -it was an officially sanctioned and cleansed purveyor of the news. Ironically it was called Pravda, which means “truth”. And dissenting views in the old Soviet Union were forcibly suppressed – sometimes by imprisonment and sometimes by the firing squad. Purges were common during the Stalin years. Pravda was privatized in 1991 after the fall of communism.

Or consider the situation in some Islamic countries. In all of them, depicting the prophet is a crime, sometimes punishable by death. Salman Rushdie the novelist had a fatwa issued calling for his death after he wrote the Satanic verses. And the horrific neo-barbarians of daesh beheaded a 15 year old boy for listening to western music.

The struggle for freedom of the press in the United States came to a head in 1927. There was an attempt to suppress a scurrilous Minneapolis newspaper called The Saturday Express that year. A muck-raking rag put out by a bigot, the paper also attacked the corruption rampant in the city during those years of prohibition. A gangster named Mose Barnett ran everything from booze to protection rackets and had city officials in his pocket. The other newspapers reported on crime but did not name names.

In his book, Minnesota Rag, journalist Fred Friendly, President of CBS News for a while and later the William R. Murrow Professor of Journalism at Columbia University, writes that the Chief of Police Frank Brunskill seized every copy of the paper’s very first edition before it hit the news stands. The Saturday Press “became the only paper on record ever banned in the United States before a single issue had been published.”

The crusading editor, Jay M. Near, was undaunted. A few days later, two gangsters shot his partner Howard Guilford in an ambush. Guilford survived but was hospitalized. Near carried on alone. A dry cleaner named Sam Shapiro resisted the mob’s attempt to extort protection money and fearing the police would be no help, reported his story to Jay Near. The third issue of the paper carried a screaming headline “Police ‘Baffled” in Their Attempts to Identify Acid-Throwing Thugs Who Assaulted Sam Shapiro AFTER He Had Been Threatened by Mose Barnett. Guilford Shot Down in Cold Blood by Gangsters AFTER He Had Been Threatened by Mose Barnett. Will the Present Grand Jury Act?”

Friendly writes that Near “accused Mayor George Leach, Charles G. Davis, head of the Law Enforcement League, and County Attorney Floyd Olson of being either blind or party to” the illegal goings-on. He accused Police Chief Brunskill of being in cahoots with Barnett.

Although the Chief had tried to suppress the paper unofficially up to then, on Oct. 8, 1927 he officially banned it citing a “little used city ordinance prohibiting obscene material that would ‘corrupt the morals of children or any publication  devoted principally to stories of crime, bloodshed or tales of lust.'” This law, according to Wikipedia, was the Public Nuisance Law of 1925 and unofficially known as the Minnesota Gag Law.

It’s a fascinating tale that saw Near ruled against in the Minnesota Supreme Court twice. Col. Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune came to Near’s rescue and in 1931 he was vindicated in a 5-4 ruling by the United States Supreme Court. The court essentially ruled that censorship was unconstitutional.

The Chicago Tribune has this excerpt from the judgment chiseled in a marble plaque in its lobby.

“The administration of government has become more complex, the opportunities for malfeasance and corruption have multiplied. Crime has grown to most serious proportions and the danger of its protection by unfaithful officials and of the impairment of the fundamental security of life and property by criminal alliances and official neglect emphasize the primary need of a vigilant and courageous press, especially in great cities. The fact that the liberty of the press may be abused by miscreant purveyors of scandal does not make any less necessary the immunity of the press from previous restraint in dealing with official misconduct.” – Charles Evans Hughes, Chief Justice United States

The issue has come to be known as prior restraint. Wikipedia reports that “it was a key precedent in New York Times Co. vs United States (1971), in which the court ruled against the Nixon administration’s attempt to enjoin publication of the Pentagon Papers.”

But the idea of freedom of speech and freedom of the press is constantly under attack. Even in the United States today, there are attempts being made to suppress by law contrary views on climate change.

The freedom of the press is so important and so fundamental to our freedom that it is disturbing when a journalist and someone allegedly devoted to the idea of freedom can both condemn the press with such vehemence that they seem to be begging for some sort of intervention to suppress ideas they find uncomfortable.

In the last few years I have become increasingly convinced of the importance of the role pluralism plays in protecting our freedoms from abuse. In the world of journalism this means many news sources with different agendas and different goals. Some will try to be impartial. Some will have a decided slant – left like Salon, the Young Turks or the Tyee, or right like the National Post or Fox News. A multiplicity of views and slants make us better informed. Certainly some media will be scandalous. Some will be obscene. Some will be blatant propaganda sheets.

But each in its own way, adds to the cauldron of ideas and leads us to the truth.

One is reminded of those great arguments of John Stuart Mill in favour of free expression in his classic essay On Liberty.

“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion,” writes Mill, “mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

Mill goes on to list two reasons why: “First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”

And maybe even more importantly, his second reason argues that even if received opinion is absolutely true and the opinion under consideration is absolutely false: “However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”

All too often I see people, left and right and of all opinions in between, bluster that their position is absolute truth. That they are, in fact, infallible. And the more infallible they believe themselves to be, the more vehement they are in their assertions and the more vehement they are in their desire to see contrary opinions suppressed. This is particularly true on university campuses today where a certain militant stridency rules. An over-bearing tendency to violence and intimidation.

But I’ve also seen this in supposed libertarians who preach hatred against ideological opponents. Who sometimes openly confess that they wish for harm and even death to befall their foes. That is no way to win a war of ideas.

Reason demands reasoned argument. Dispassionate discourse. And may the soundest argument win. Not an imposition of ideological purity from above.

It is particularly ironic when supposed believers in individual liberty hold such attitudes because they betray attitudes common to adherents of mass movements. In his monumental book, The True Believer, Eric Hoffer writes, ” All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single-hearted allegiance.”

Hoffer speaks of a readiness to die. He could have added as well a readiness to harm and even to kill.

A freedom loving society ought to embrace contrary opinions. This does not mean agreeing with those ideas, but it does mean a tolerance towards dissent and an openness to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, you could be wrong. It means a willingness to listen and to oppose ideas you don’t like with argument, not a will to suppress.

Postcript: It is said that defending freedom of speech often entails defending offensive speech, defending the right to express unpopular ideas. This is the essence of the Voltairean quote that heads this essay.  In 1984, the government of Canada prosecuted a prominent holocaust denier for spreading “false news”, a thinly veiled excuse for censorship. As offensive as this individual was, I wrote a spirited defense of his right to speak and publish in the libertarian newsletter I published. That essay was also published as an op-ed piece in the Vancouver Sun newspaper and in Free World Chronicle, the newsletter of Libertarian International. Follow the link to check it out: Soapbox for Slime.