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  • T. W. Emory

Freedom from the Press?

Public opinion and freedom of the press recently came up in a conversation I had with a good friend. After our discussion my curiosity got me hunting up noteworthy quotes on these issues ascribed to well-known people of the past. From these I selected two quotes on each subject that I felt particularly stood out from the rest.

Public opinion usually refers to the desires, wants, and thinking of the majority of people or the collective opinion of the general populace on a certain issue or problem. Alfred Austin, an English poet who was appointed Poet Laureate in 1896, stated: “Public opinion is no more than this: what people think that other people think.” His fellow countryman, the statesman, army officer, writer and one-time Prime Minister, Winston Churchill said: “There is no such thing as public opinion. There is only published opinion.” Did this Poet Laureate and this former Prime Minister merely look upon society with a jaundiced eye? Or, is what people think that others think largely owing to what is published?

Late night hosts and some pundits on TV and radio will regularly do man-on-the-street interviews that reveal just how little the average American seems to know about such things as history, geography, and politics. These spontaneous chit-chats with the “common man” appear to dispute the flattering claims made by political candidates about most ordinary citizens being wise and well-informed. However, rather than demonstrating a lack of innate intelligence in the country at large, I tend to believe that these unscripted encounters show how the constraints of the workaday world and a multitude of nonstop distractions work against being knowledgeable. But whatever the reason, many people have no strong opinions or convictions and don’t care to voice them if they do and will simply “go along with” whatever view they believe the majority of their fellow citizens favor or support. It seems that Alfred Austin drew similar conclusions in his day and so said what he did as a result. Although many Hollywood film-makers insist that movies don’t shape society but merely reflect it, companies pay for product placement in films in order to influence consumers to buy. Related to this are the following questions: Does the media merely report what the majority favors and supports, or does it manipulate and shape what is to be favored and supported? Whether via print or electronic devices, do the various media outlets today simply tell us what most citizens want and think, or do these actually fabricate the desires and the ideas that are deemed acceptable? Were he alive today, I’ve got to imagine that Winston Churchill would weigh-in on these questions with a pithy remark or two.

Freedom of the press refers to the right to freely circulate published opinions without censorship by the government. H.L. Mencken was a satirist, cultural critic and scholar of American English. But doubtless it was his long stint as a newspaperman that led him to say: “Freedom of press is limited to those who own one.” And the writer, humorist, publisher and lecturer Mark Twain said the following about those who own such presses and their societal impact: “There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.” It seems Twain was more concerned about freedom from the press than freedomof the press. But were Mencken and Twain simply a couple of cynical curmudgeons? Or, does the average person who doesn’t own a press today, still need some protection from those who do?

While today’s digital age has certainly provided the average person the means to voice his beliefs and views, only the prominent, the influential, and the celebrated are apt to secure extremely large ‘followings’ in the various electronic venues available. Thus, it remains that the more traditional journalism organizations that employ print and electronic media are far from being displaced as primary sources of news and social commentary. So, although in the United States the first amendment guarantees “freedom of the press”, yet for all practical purposes, H.L. Mencken’s words still hold true, that only those who “own” some type of “press” are the ones who actually exercise such a freedom. And in this day and age with its up-to-the-minute online reporting and the compelling 24/7 news cycle brought about by cable and satellite television, one wonders what new concerns Mark Twain would have about freedom from the press were he alive today?

It might be considered unfair to take comments from the past that were made about society as it once was and apply these today. And yet, while the props have changed over time, human nature hasn’t, and it still appears arguable that published opinion disguised as public opinion is what the average person thinks that all his neighbors think. Moreover, most ordinary citizens don’t exercise “freedom of the press” simply because they don’t own one, nor are they completely protected from the influence of those who do.

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