Fake news isn’t suddenly ruining America, but putting government in charge of deciding what news is fake will.
In the wake of President Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, numerous media outlets ran stories claiming that many websites had published false stories that helped Trump beat Hillary Clinton.
Since then Left-leaning opinion writers have called for a solution to this alleged epidemic. The New York Times reported last January that Silicon Valley giants Facebook and Google will team up with legacy media outlets to fact-check stories and curtail the proliferation of “fake news.”
However, intentionally misleading news has been around since before the invention of the printing press. In fact, our Founding Fathers grappled with this very issue when they created our system of government. They saw that while it was tempting to censor fake stories, ultimately the truth was more likely to be abused by an all-powerful government arbiter than the filter of unimpeded popular debate. Attempts to weed out factually incorrect news reports can quickly morph into fact-checking and manipulating differences in opinion.
Fortunately, there have been few serious calls in the United States for official censoring of political news or media, in contrast to most of the world, including Europe. Freedom of thought, freedom of the press, and even the freedom to be wrong make America great and exceptional. In addition to preserving liberty, our free-wheeling tradition gives the United States an edge in adapting to the increasingly decentralized media landscape that is a natural product of the Internet Age. Most importantly, it produces a more critically informed populace in the long term.
The Founders and the Free Press
The Founding Fathers were well aware of the power of the press, for good or ill. After all, many of them, such as Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine, were newspapermen and pamphleteers. The revolutionary ideas they disseminated throughout the colonies found eager readers, putting them high on King George III’s enemies list.
Three years after the Constitution was ratified, the American people amended it by adding the Bill of Rights, which included the First Amendment and its protections of the media. However, the Founders understood that a free press was not an entirely unqualified blessing; some had reservations.
Elbridge Gerry, who was present at the Constitutional Convention, lamented how con artists in his home state were manipulating the people. “The people do not [lack] virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots,” Gerry said at the convention. “In Massachusetts it had been fully confirmed by experience, that they are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions, by the false reports circulated by designing men, and which no one on the spot can refute.”
The Founders saw that while it was tempting to censor fake stories, ultimately the truth was more likely to be abused by an all-powerful government arbiter than the filter of unimpeded popular debate.
Benjamin Franklin also warned about the power of the press, which the public must put so much trust in. In a short essay, Franklin explained how the press acted as the “court” of public opinion and wielded enormous unofficial power.
For an institution with so much influence, Franklin noted that the bar for entry into journalism is remarkably low, with no requirement regarding “Ability, Integrity, Knowledge.” He said the liberty of the press can easily turn into the “liberty of affronting, calumniating, and defaming one another.”
The Founders wrote constitutional protections for the press with open eyes, as their written remarks record. Yet, the evils that come through the occasional problems of a free press are heavily outweighed by its benefits. Lies may proliferate, but the truth has a real chance to rise to the top.
Thomas Jefferson said that the most effectual way for a people to be governed by “reason and truth” is to give freedom to the press. There was simply no other way. He wrote in a letter to Gerry:
I am […] for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.
Liars and scandal mongers may occasionally have success in a system without censorship, but truth was ultimately more likely to be found when passed through the people as a whole. Jefferson wrote:
It is so difficult to draw a clear line of separation between the abuse and the wholesome use of the press, that as yet we have found it better to trust the public judgment, rather than the magistrate, with the discrimination between truth and falsehood. And hitherto the public judgment has performed that office with wonderful correctness.
Despite full knowledge of the media’s often unscrupulous power over public opinion, the Founders chose to grant broad protections to a decentralized press, opting to place their faith in newspapers checking one another with more efficacy and less risk of bias than heavy-handed government crackdowns.
When the Federalist Party passed the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts under President John Adams to clamp down on “false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the government in the midst of the “Quasi War” with France, there was an immense backlash. A few journalists were arrested, but the governing party was crushed in future elections and ceased to exist shortly thereafter. In the United States, press freedom would become an almost unquestioned element of American culture and policy.
Things worked out differently across the Atlantic. In France, a popular uprising, stoked by a rabid press, led to mob violence, tyranny, and oppressive censorship. Revolutionary scribblers initially brought an end to the Old Regime and the royal restrictions on speech, but freedom of the press didn’t last. After the monarchy was crushed, the revolutionaries censored the press even more ruthlessly than had the Bourbon kings. The radicals argued that press freedom was leading people astray and impeding their revolution.
Maximilien Robespierre, leader of the Jacobin party, called journalists “the most dangerous enemies of liberty.” Robespierre and his allies in the French government created a state-sponsored newspaper to counter what they saw as the media’s lies. Then, seeing that even that was not enough to prevent alternative opinions from growing, began to arrest and execute those who opposed the policies of the government. Robespierre’s “Reign of Terror” gripped France for more than a year, during which 16,594 official death sentences were handed out.
In the mid-20th century, the American press became more centralized and the country opened its media sector to many of the same problems that had plagued European media.
Calls for liberty ended with censorship and ultimately the guillotine for unbelievers. Clearly there was a difference between the American and French regimes and cultures, both nominally standing for liberty, but arriving at radically different ends.
A Frenchman who was a keen observer of both systems explained why freedom of the press worked out so differently in these sister republics.
Tocqueville, the United States, and France
Alexis de Tocqueville caught on to why liberty of the press worked so much better in the United States than in his home country. One system was almost entirely free from suggestions of government censorship and the other perpetually in danger of falling prey to the “instincts of the pettiest despots.”
Americans understood, wrote Tocqueville in his book “Democracy in America”, that creating a government body with the power to assess the truth in media would be far more dangerous than any system of press freedom. They instinctively knew that:
Whoever should be able to create and maintain a tribunal of this kind would waste his time in prosecuting the liberty of the press; for he would be the absolute master of the whole community and would be as free to rid himself of the authors as of their writings.
In other words, the creation of such an official “court” to oversee media truth would logically end in absolute tyranny. Tocqueville concluded that “in order to enjoy the inestimable benefits that the liberty of the press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable evils that it creates.”
Fortunately, America had a diverse and highly decentralized press from the beginning. Not so in France, which had a highly centralized press both in terms of geography and number of media organizations. Therefore, Tocqueville wrote, in a centralized media environment such as France, “[t]he influence upon a skeptical nation of a public press thus constituted must be almost unbounded. It is an enemy with whom a government may sign an occasional truce, but which it is difficult to resist for any length of time.”
France never really changed. It continued a cycle of crackdowns on the free press as new regimes took power. Instead of decentralizing the press of the monarchical regime, each successive set of revolutionaries seized the central apparatus for their own purposes. In 1852, when the Second Empire under Napoleon III took power, the government said that censorship would be implemented for public safety.