The Death of Freedom of the Press
In 1807, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” If Jefferson’s perceptions were correct, it is reasonable to wonder how accurately events are reported in the news now and in modern history. Jefferson also wrote that one could at least glean some facts from the news. In the 1800’s, newspapers were primarily owned by individuals and small businesses. If one picked up a newspaper from Philadelphia and another from New York, there would be distinct differences in how each newspaper reported a single event. This is no longer the case. Now, a handful of corporations own all of the media: newspapers, television stations, radio stations, and all major internet news websites.
When the media is controlled by a small number of individuals or corporations, one cannot possibly expect truth to prevail. Whatever is written or aired is not challenged. Independent journalists who manage to publish findings of fact that differ from those extolled by conventional media are labeled liars, crackpots, and even criminals. Large corporations often have symbiotic relationships with governments. This is true in the United States, and as such, the government has a certain amount of control over the media. This is contrary to the idea of a free press.
A popular example of complicity between American mainstream media and the American government is the press coverage of Operation Just Cause. This was the official title of the military operation that, in December 1989, ousted Panama’s president, Manuel Noriega. The official position of the United States government was that Noriega was a criminal, a drug lord who facilitated the import of illegal drugs to the United States from South America. Noriega was also accused of ousting a democratically elected president, being a murdering tyrant of his own people, allowing or ordering his soldiers to kill American servicemen stationed at the Canal, and declaring war on the U.S. The military action involved ground troops and aerial bombs dropped on Panamanian towns. Noriega surrendered, and was taken as a prisoner of war. He was transported to Florida, where he was tried and convicted of several crimes resulting in a 17 year prison sentence.
Immediately following the Panama invasion, reporters were in Panama conducting interviews. Mainstream media reporters were accompanied by American soldiers, riding in American military vehicles. Poll results indicated Panamanians were highly satisfied with the American military invasion and the ouster of their president. Independent reporters, however, painted a different picture. Independent news sources reported heavy civilian casualties and much anger and hostility toward the American government. These reports were rarely seen by the general American public, and those reports that did manage to garner attention were criticized or mocked by the mainstream media. It should hardly be surprising that the polls showed such support from the average Panamanian. Imagine a Panamanian standing outside, surveying the damage caused by American bombs. If the area wasn’t hit, perhaps he is worrying about family and friends who reside where the bombs caused devastation. A convoy of American military vehicles pulls up, and a clean-cut young man hops out of a tank. He begins asking questions, wondering if the man supports the American military’s action. Looking up at the soldier manning the machine gun turrets, what else is the Panamanian going to say, other than, “Yes, I love Americans”!
Media coverage by most American news sources continued to paint that same picture of the Panama invasion in 2011. By this time, conflicting news reports were readily available and fact-checking a fairly simple task. In fact, foreign news sources such as Russia Today give readers a very different picture of the events. While American news outlets even today claim that Noriega was an evil dictator and the invasion saved the people of Panama from a horrendous fate under his continued rule, Russia Today reports a more nefarious objective. Maintaining control of the Panama Canal, it reported, was the main goal of Operation Just Cause. Another theory was raised by John Perkins in his book, “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man”. This theory centers on the reputation of the president who ordered the invasion of Panama, George W. Bush. Perkins’ belief is that President Bush wanted to show his power and strength to constituents who saw him as a spineless wimp.
Freedom of the press is an American ideal. People, in general, believe the media reports they see on television, read in newspapers, or read on the internet are products of a free press. If one were to actually delve into the news a bit, the lack of a free press is readily apparent. The Rendon Group is an organization employed by the United States military to “advise and shape Pentagon communications strategy, do analysis of media coverage, and run propaganda programs”. This group is known for searching out independent reporters in Afghanistan whose news reports reflect negatively on the United States. One can only guess what happens when this group of “fixers” manages to catch up with a rogue reporter.
Journalists are jailed and imprisoned all over the world, and American journalists are not exempt. In a country whose Bill of Rights includes both freedom of speech and freedom of the press, one should expect outrage when these freedoms are abridged. Unfortunately, the American public easily accepts reassurances from the mainstream media that these jailed journalists are terrorists, crazy, or not really journalists at all. Americans find the notion that their country would imprison journalists for reporting factual news inconceivable. It is this lack of doubt, this unfailing nationalism, that prohibits an actual free press.
When major media outlets collude to present the same facts and vilify foreign news sources like Russia Today and Al Jazeera that report conflicting facts, there is no freedom of speech, no freedom of the press. When “perception managers” like the Rendon Group are employed by the government of a free nation, freedom of the press is officially dead. Thomas Jefferson’s words are truer now than when he wrote them. “He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.”
Jefferson, Thomas. Letter to John Norvell. 14 June 1807. Amendment I (Speech and Press): Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2012. <http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/amendI_speechs29.html>.
Perkins, John. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004. Print.
“The Panama Deception.” The Panama Deception. Russia Today, 21 Dec. 2010. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://rt.com/usa/news/usa-panama-invasion-media-anniversary/>.
“Don’t Call It A Comeback! Noriega Returns To Panama.” Breaking News for Black America RSS. NewsOne Staff, 24 Nov. 2011. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://newsone.com/1661735/dont-call-it-a-comeback-noriega-returns-to-panama/>.
Hanly, Ken. “Rendon Marketing Group Provides Pentagon Advice for a Price.” Op-Ed: Rendon Marketing Group Provides Pentagon Advice for a Price. Digitaljournal.com, 20 Nov. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/337325>.
Scahill, Jeremy. “Why Is President Obama Keeping a Journalist in Prison in Yemen? | The Nation.” Why Is President Obama Keeping a Journalist in Prison in Yemen? | The Nation. TheNation.com, 13 Mar. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://www.thenation.com/article/166757/why-president-obama-keeping-journalist-prison-yemen>.