Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . . Anthony Lewis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist best known for his pioneering coverage of the Supreme Court, did not believe those words granted special status to the media. The press, in his view, referred, not to institutions but to the printing press itself, which in his view was simply an extension of speech. “It’s a great mistake,” he said “for the press to give itself a preferred position.” I had never thought of that until I read it yesterday in Lewis’ obituary. As a long-time First Amendment absolutist, I believed it gave journalists unique protections to report the truth and required, in return, a singular commitment from publishers and other media owners to the public trust.
Yet Lewis’ view has inspired me. The decline of the traditional media, both in terms of dwindling revenues and diminishing public respect, is in many ways self-inflicted. The journalism of Fox News and the rest of Rupert Murdoch’s abysmal empire are tough to reconcile with a belief in a free and responsible press: “Gotcha” journalism; wiretapping and gross invasions of privacy; putting the bottom line before the public interest – and then wrapping it all in the First Amendment – this couldn’t be what the Founding Fathers had in mind.
But the protections that all of us have, not just to speak our minds but to publish our thoughts – even on this blog – without government censorship or fear of arrest, now that is a right worth standing up for.