We are Guaranteed a Free Press, not a Fair One

There’s a picture circulating on media channels that shows a man wearing a T-shirt stating “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.” The picture was taken at a political rally in Minnesota on Sunday.

I’m already on record with this: I have no tolerance for threats against journalists, whether they work in the United States or anywhere else on the planet. That kind of message infuriates me.

I interpret that statement to be the wearer’s free expression of frustration about “liberal media bias” or, as some folks are wont to claim, straight up “media lies.” Don’t forget that media outlets often make these claims of unfairness against other media outlets.

It’s important to understand something, here. In this country, our constitution guarantees a free press. It does not guarantee a fair one.

Our system is built on the Enlightenment-era ideal that women and men should be free to search for the truth from multiple sources. The idea is that through a diversity of viewpoints, the truth will emerge. In turn, our system is reluctant to rely too heavily on censorship because unpopular ideas may prove valuable to the public conversation. There comes with that the recognition that an abundance of falsehoods could obfuscate efforts to discover the truth. Our system accepts this.

There is no expectation of fairness in the First Amendment’s free press clause. During the Revolutionary era (prior to the First Amendment’s existence), the Patriot press certainly was not fair. It favored separation from Great Britain, and any Tory who published an opposing view might have found himself getting run out of town. The press system of our country’s early years survived through affiliation with political parties. It was a newspaper’s duty to support the party line and eviscerate its political opponents. Fairness was eschewed; the other party was wrong. Period.

The idea of fairness started developing in the nineteenth century and continued throughout the twentieth century as journalism began to professionalize. Readers’ expectations had changed, and offering a more balanced take on the news of the day made more money. As codes of ethics emerged, fairness became a professional goal. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics includes fairness as a hallmark of ethical journalism, and there are many, many fine news organizations producing intelligent, thought-provoking – and yes, fair – journalism.

However, not everyone is interested in producing fair journalism. They’re interested in making money, and fairness isn’t always profitable. Our system allows this, and the expectation falls on us to figure out in whom we trust. It’s part of the fascinating-yet-flawed Marketplace of Ideas concept we love to champion: I accept this idea and that idea, but I don’t believe in these ideas or those ideas. It is our privilege to choose media outlets which we believe are being fair and are telling us the truth.

Some of us are choosing poorly.


Butler Cain is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Communications at the University of North Alabama. He received a Ph.D. in Media History from The University of Alabama and is a former professional journalist and broadcast news director.

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