According to Howard K. Smith, who used to be ABC's liberal apologist for the likes of Lyndon Johnson regarding the glorious Vietnam endeavor, "The assault by the American judicial system, headed by the Supreme Court," on the freedom of the press is "spectacular and scary." So reports TV Guide. Smith, who in Las Vegas addressed the Radio Television News Directors Association, is just one of the innumerable media people sounding off about the dirty deal perpetrated lately upon the Fourth Estate.
In fact, the situation they are protesting is largely of their very own making. If any group of professionals can be held primarily responsible for the erosion of liberty in our land, it is the members of the media, including all those who utilize the commercial presses and airwaves to speak and write what's on their minds. This is admittedly a very large, often not intimately connected, group of people. It includes everyone from the local talk-show host on an independent television or radio station to the editors of the New York Review of Books and the authors who publish with Random House and Harvard University Press. And many more. I'll call this group the verbalists. They make it their profession to write or speak, not unlike I do. And the bulk of this group has gone to the greatest lengths in the last 50 years to rid the United States of human liberty.
Of course, they have remained for the most part well-protected by the most explicit and least ambiguous of the amendments included in the Bill of Rights, the first, with its provision for freedom of the press. Congress shall make no law regarding this, you might recall. While not consistently and constantly observed, this has been one original sentiment of the Founders generating great consensus. For the press, this has meant a clear advantage over less well protected professions and has thus ensured its elitist status.
The verbalists have proceeded to advance some of the most horrendous statist notions. And if the rest of the community tries to respond? If a printer, for instance, were to refuse to service some publisher because the publisher is advocating asinine ideas in his magazine? The rest of the press would join this publisher with outrage about the way in which the printer is attempting censorship and undermining the very foundations of the republic. Should, however, some editor at the New York Times advocate that landscapers, or street vendors, or barbers be licensed, nothing dangerous would be perceived, and fellow journalists would commend one another for public spiritedness.
One need not stick to hypotheticals. Recent proposals in Los Angeles to institute extensive rent control have had enthusiastic support from the news media. On September 6, the reporters on the CBS affiliate, KNX-TV, expressly bemoaned the reluctance of the Los Angeles politicians to rush to judgment with the rent control measure. They gave not the slightest hint that there might be a side to the controversy favoring the case of apartment owners. This example is one of literally thousands.
In short, the overwhelming majority of those who write and speak for a profession refuse, to their peril, to recognize the indivisibility of human liberty. One cannot rationally expect that after all the other members of the community have been enslaved to the hilt, the press will somehow be spared. Yet it is just this expectation that has fueled the hypocrisy of the press for two generations.
The situation is made even worse by the fact that the loss of liberty for others makes the press's job easier. As the rest of society becomes less and less free of government, people in that society lose more and more of their privacy and facts about them become public record. A news reporter can nowadays go to various public records and get information on virtually anything or anyone in order to write his expose, his in-depth analysis, his investigative report on IBM or the inventory practices of the local haberdashery. Members of the press have their raw material supplied virtually free of charge when the rest of the country around them is nationalized, municipalized, or simply politicized.
But the chickens are now coming home to roost. While the loss of the freedom of the press is indeed a tragedy, it isn't greater, as far as the rule of law and the overall value of liberty are concerned, than anyone else's loss of liberty. And in the last few years the courts have in effect begun to say, "Well, the press is an industry, and since we have been encouraged to regulate industries right and left, it's about time we regulate this enormously influential industry, as well." Now, with various major decisions—the Farber case, the Stanford Daily case, and the Herbert case—having gone against the desires of the press (not, however, all so simply against its liberty, for in the present situation it is entirely unclear what does and what does not advance liberty), Mr. Smith and his colleagues are upset. As Smith said, these "outrageous decisions…simply have to be fought with every wise means" possible.
The wisest means, Mr. Smith, would be to fight for freedom on every front. To cry out as much against the court decisions that allow government to ransack the records of businesses, to subpoena everyone who might have some light to shed on some alleged antitrust violation, and to be privy to citizens' financial transactions by confiscating bank property—that would be just a good beginning. Another might well be to start coming out vigorously against public broadcasting, the first step to the eventual nationalization of the verbalist profession. Then to attack the public school system, which has placed the government into a position of mind-shaper and has destroyed competition in the sphere of ideas. There are millions of other possible areas of attack, where the fascistic decisions of courts "have to be fought with every wise means."
Only when the likes of Mr. Smith will consistently defend individual liberty, not just for their own ilk but also for those who are not in the profession of giving verbal expression to their own interests (all the doctors, plumbers, businessmen, carpenters, oil producers), will their outrage at the recent judicial harassment of the press be appreciated as fully justified. One cannot defend one's interest in the name of justice and ignore the same interest in the rest of the community, especially when one regards it as one's profession to be the conscience, fact-finder, reporter, and advocate of the community—as the Fourth Estate, somewhat vainly, surely regards itself.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Press Hypocrisy".