Are Journalists really all that special?

Sometimes the truth just comes out, in spite of everything. On February 22, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough (Morning Joe) asked his co-host Mika Brzezinski if the reaction to Donald Trump was not somewhat overblown. Ms. Brzenski proceeded to make an unbelievable claim. She first said she was afraid that Trump would get to a point where he would be able to “tell people what to think.” The next words out of her mouth were, “That is our job” (meaning the news media). This journalist apparently believes that the reason the public media exists is to tell people what to think.

While that level of hubris is not surprising on MSNBC and many other networks, what happened on Friday (2/24) was a real shocker. Chris Wallace (Fox News Sunday) was being interviewed on the Fox and Friends show and was asked about President Trump skipping the White House correspondent’s Dinner. Mr. Wallace said it was not a major problem, but that he is concerned about Trump’s attacks on the media, and a claimed exclusion of some media outlets from a press briefing. This story is of course another bit of fake news. The journalists were not singled out to not be allowed in, they were simply not among those invited to the “gaggle” in addition to the press pool chosen by the correspondent’s association. There is a daily pool of journalists chosen by journalists that get to follow the President around. Everybody else gets their news from that pool, and those chosen for the pool changes daily. The President (as all others before him) chose a few more to be added to that pool. If the “offended elite” had been chosen by their colleagues to be in the pool that day, Trump would not have kicked them out. Just because he did not pick them to be added is not some major offense except to the media’s over-inflated ego.

This brings me to my main point here, and back to Chris Wallace. While opining the seriousness of Trump’s trampling of media access, he said that this was an issue because “we are included in the first amendment.” The meaning is clear. Chris Wallace apparently believes that professional journalists are the recipients of a Constitutional right. As incredible as it might sound, it appears that some journalists actually believe the First Amendment is just for them. I know they think we all have freedom of speech, religion and the right to assemble; but when it comes to the “press” our founders singled out professional journalists to be named in the specific included liberties that no one is supposed to infringe.

At the risk of inspiring an Al Gore memory, here is the inconvenient truth about the First Amendment. Here is “exactly” what it says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

CONGRESS is the subject of the sentence. The entirety of the amendment lists what Congress “shall not” do, and additionally (as in all of the rest of the Bill of Rights) what the citizens must be allowed to do without interference from the government. Concerning the “freedom of the press” one must look to the rest of the wording. Freedom of religion, speech, assembly, and petition of the government all quite obviously apply to individual citizens. Why then would it make sense to yank one phrase completely out of context and force it to apply to some other group entirely?

In addition to the obvious structure of the wording, the culture of that time forbids the Wallace interpretation of First Amendment privilege. There were newspapers in that time, but they were mostly privately owned and just as prejudicial as media outlets today. They chose their candidates, their causes, and their opinions, praising their friends and castigating their foes. The difference however is that those papers while widely circulated were not the primary publications read by many Americans. There was another whole class of publishing which much more readily and regularly reached the masses than did big city newspapers.

The people in small towns and in large cities were regularly treated to news and commentary by pamphleteers and independent book publishers. The works of most of our founding fathers were not first published by some large media conglomerate, but simply either bound handwritten copies of their papers, or actually printed under paid contract with the author. While some volumes had a large market due to the notoriety of the author, others were barely read beyond close associates and family.

The “freedom of the press” notated in the first amendment quite literally means the right of citizens to publish what they say and write without interference from the government. The described liberty of press has absolutely nothing to do with pubic media, and everything to do with individuals speaking their mind freely. That included what they said, and what they wrote and published (by means of a printing press).

Professional journalism was not the over sized egotistical behemoth it is today. Journalists in fact were often scorned and frowned upon because they used any means necessary to get a story and were not above complete fabrication of material just to get attention. Perhaps today is not as different as we think when it comes to professional journalists.

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