The premise of conservative commentator Mark Levin’s new book, “Unfreedom of the Press,” is that modern journalism has devolved into an opinionated, group-think pack of politically partisan propagandists who oppose President Trump at every turn and think he is a danger to freedom of the press.
While we don’t think that conclusion is totally valid, the book does offer a worthy historic perspective on the behaviors of the press and our presidents.
Levin notes that for more than a century the American press was unabashedly partisan, often surviving on printing contracts from the party in power when the newspapers were able to put them there. He seems to accept the notion that sometime early in the 19th Century journalists altruistically embraced the concept of objectivity.
Actually the conversion was mostly profit-motivated. It was borne of the penny press.
The newspaper business model changed from being dependent on government printing contracts and political party handouts to one of being supported by advertisers, whose customers paid the same for a pair of shoes no matter which party they embraced. So why alienate half of your potential customers with partisanship? The newspaper that delivered the highest readership fetched the highest advertising dollar.
Levin’s book does point out correctly that Trump’s often repeated and tweeted animus for the press is benign compared to past presidents.
With the ink still damp on the First Amendment President John Adams pushed through the Federal Congress a series of Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. These acts made it a crime to “write, print, utter or publish … any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute …” The penalty was a fine or imprisonment for up to two years.
Under those laws more than 20 Republican newspaper editors were arrested and some were imprisoned. Among those was newspaperman James Callender who called Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” These details are not in the book, by the way.
Levin notes Abraham Lincoln enforced censorship during the Civil War and jailed several reporters, editors and publishers.
President Wilson used the Espionage Act of 1917 to jail pamphleteers and to deny mailing permits to anti-war newspapers.
Levin further notes the left’s beloved President Franklin Roosevelt used an iron-hand to control the media and even grabbed private telegrams of publishers.
Further, he notes that President Obama, another liberal heart-throb, secretly subpoenaed records of 20 Associated Press telephone lines, spied on Fox News reporter James Rosen and subpoenaed New York Times reporter James Risen, demanding he testify about his sources.
So far, Trump hasn’t done any of those things, but Levin concludes he is seen by the press as a major threat.
Levin includes a lengthy outtake from a February 2019 article by New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger who took umbrage with Trump calling his newspaper “the enemy of the people” and arguing that is not only false but dangerous. “It has an ugly history of being wielded by dictators and tyrants who sought to control public information,” the publisher countered.
To which Levin replies, “As discussed earlier, unlike certain of the president’s predecessors, Trump has taken no official governmental steps to silence news organizations or journalists. Although Sulzberger mentioned Jefferson, Kennedy, and Reagan as defenders of the press despite their complaints about it, a group in which Trump should actually be included for these purposes, Sulzberger omits that Adams, Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, and Obama did, in fact, use the power of the federal government against news outlets and journalists with whom they disagreed. Sulzberger’s rhetoric about Trump is dishonest and a deflection from his own failure as a newspaper publisher.”
Though the book is too often a hash of overly long quotes from historians and others and has an overly jaundiced conclusion, it offers a perspective to which few outside the journalism profession have been exposed.
Frankly, there should be tension between the press and government.
Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/