The Free Press

Democracy is in trouble if some individuals or groups become too powerful in a society. How can we prevent this from happening? I can point to three guardians of democracy: the laws, the court, and the free press. When we look at a dictatorship, a communist or an authoritarian regime, none of the three guardians are actually performing their duties. They are there to serve those in power instead of the people.

In America, the rich, powerful and famous all agree that the press is a pain in the ass. Isn’t that what the free press is supposed to do? The laws in a free society protect freedom of the press and the courts back it up. Like good health, freedom is something you take for granted until you lose it.

In a free society, the rich hate the press because it digs up all the dirt about their methods of getting rich and their corrupt lifestyles. The politicians dislike the press because it challenges their ideas and decisions. In the case of a bribery, the press has the ability to trace where the money comes from. The celebrities wish the press would go away although the press has contributed to their fame. Sometimes the press overreaches and gets sued. For instance, the National Enquirer has been ordered by the courts to pay millions in libel damages to some celebrities.

When you become rich, powerful or famous, you should recognize that being haunted by the press comes with the territory. There is no free meal in this world. You pay for your high status with some of your privacy. For instance, a superstar cannot go to an ice cream shop on a whim like the rest of us. The fans and the media will surround him. He may miss the things he used to do when he was nobody, but he must recognize the price he has to pay for being somebody now.

The press is less susceptible to bribery than other industries. Why? If a rich and powerful person tries to bribe the press to shut up, immediately it will explode into news headlines, because headlines may bring in more sales than the bribe. This raises an intriguing question: What if some rich person owns and operates a big news company to promote his ideas and agenda? A conspicuous example is Rupert Murdoch of News Corporation, which owns Fox News. Do you think Fox presents a “balanced” coverage and opinion as they claim? You will say yes only if you close your mind to the facts and other opinions.

The people rely on the free press to inform, entertain, challenge, and if possible to enlighten. On the other hand, the free press also feeds information to those in power by relaying the wishes of the people and their living conditions. A truly free press delivers information in both directions, thus facilitating communications between layers of society. A press failing to perform its duties can cause great damage. Three glaring examples:

The deep recession since late 2008 is mainly caused by sub-prime real estate lending by the big US banks. Before the real estate bubble burst, there was not much news regarding the potential dangers of sub-prime lending. Worse, some press joined in the risky adventure by praising how creative the bankers were. They failed to mention how reckless the bankers tried to make money.

During the months leading to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the press did not perform its duty to challenge President Bush for his risky venture to fight a war of choice. Fox news was even arguing for the war. By 2006, the war turned out to be a disaster. It costs the US more than $1 trillion, over 4000 dead, and many more maimed.

In many countries ruled by an authoritarian regime, the press becomes a propaganda instrument of the leadership. Information flows only in one direction because the press does not challenge those in power with the truth about what the people are complaining and doing. Consequently, the regime is disconnected with the people. This creates a dangerous situation where those who govern do not know how the people are faring. It’s a good recipe for instability and eventual blood bath.

(July 2010)

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