Why is freedom of the press protected by democratic states and how should it help democracy?

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The Politicus
Aug 08, 2021 09:20 AM 0 Answers
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Conventional wisdom holds that the press is a beneficial fourth estate that counterbalances the powers of the government, jurisdiction and legislation. Having felt a certain cognitive dissonance between this conception and my own lifelong observations, I have never really understood why people believe in this so firmly.

There is no doubt to me, that freedom of speech is necessary if a society wants itself to be considered "free" if that word has any deeper meaning. But in my opinion, there is a huge difference between you and me being able to utter our very personal opinions, and people mass-influencing others while being paid for it with one incentive or another. Payment always creates possible conflicts of interest, no matter if payment is in dollars, or the sharing of valuable inside information by politicians, or something else.

Moreover, I wonder whether it is covered by the general principle of equality common to most or all democracies, if a certain caste of professional prophets is declared "more equal" than other people with respect to expressing opinion. First of all, the canonization of journalists as somehow official heralds of the truth keeps some (or even a lot of) ordinary people from building their own opinion, most importantly if journalism is considered primarily a vehicle of opinion instead of fact.

If those are not enough arguments against freedom of press, I would clearly phrase it this way: a paid journalist, who conveys opinion to a lot of people, in order to promote or even increase his payment or other non-cash benefits, is no different, morally, than a stock trader who spreads subjective "information" about stocks he owns (in order to raise their prices) or stocks he wants to buy (in order to lower their prices).

Just like the trader manipulates economic behavior of people for his own benefit, the journalist manipulates political behavior. So, I think, instead of protecting journalism by the "freedom of the press", the state should instead keep a close eye on journalism in the same sense as it does on businesses with respect to market manipulation, anti-trust, corruption, compliance, etc. Facts (see freedom of information) should be allowed to the press, of course, opinion should not. Opinions should be the protected right of the private individuals.

Some may ask, "but what to do with all the private influencers on social media, we can't just shut them up". Well, easy, because the social media incentivizes members by only drawing attention to chosen ones, according to their algorithms that promote their own economic success. Any algorithm that prefers the opinion of one person over another, without the expressed consent and control of the involved persons, is corruptly violating freedom of speech with respect to the general principle of equality, and it is due to a financial conflict of interest. Giving some persons more attention than others is, in some way, like a kickback payment to the disadvantage of the general public who pay with their attention to the supposed "opinion authorities".

The problem does not become more harmless by the fact, that paid journalists are also heavily participating in social media, creating deeper and deeper conflict of interest networks, while the naive conception requires the journalist to report freely and independently of external, especially government influence.

The following quote by Oscar Wilde (according to Wikipedia) shows that press oligopolism is not at all a new issue:

In old days men had the rack. Now they have the Press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralizing. Somebody — was it Burke? — called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism.

So how come that this topic is not discussed more widely?

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  • August 8, 2021