American Freedom of Speech and Control
December 16, 2013
By Wang Xiaoshi (王小石)
Owing to the longstanding influence of American common sense as it is drum-beaten by the liberal media [in China], many Chinese now have the impression that the United States is a society in which the news is absolutely free, and the government has no control over what media report. [NOTE: The term “liberal media” here is 普世系媒体, which refers to commercially-driven media, such as Southern Metropolis Daily and Southern Weekly, that tend to uphold “universal values” such as freedom of the press.]
The government, [they believe], is powerless to do anything about this, given the protection of press freedom in the American Constitution. I’d like to set out some materials below in an attempt to give a truer picture of the press environment in the United States.
1. The Basic Nature of American “Press Freedom”
There is a rather insightful political manifest written by an American in which they tell this story:
An American arrived on a small island in order to study their system of democracy. The king of this small island informed him that they handled things in a very democratic fashion. When they held meetings to discuss affairs all of the island’s people were present, each one holding a golden trumpet. When the time came for voting, a matter was decided by whichever side, for or against, made the greatest sound.
When the American heard this, he thought it was very democratic indeed. He asked if he could witness the proceedings for himself.
On the day matters were debated, he discovered that each time it came to determine the measures to be taken, it was always the same few people who sounded off their trumpets. Everyone else was silent and motionless. The American thought it was strange, and so he asked the king: “Why don’t the others make a sound?”
The king answered: “Because they can’t afford to buy golden trumpets.”
That wasn’t democratic at all, the American said. It was simple rule by the wealthy. To this the king responded: “Well then, how does your democracy work?” So the American started to introduce the idea of press supervision, how the power of the government could be checked by the media.
“Well,” asked the king, “who does your media belong to?”
“To the wealthy,” the American answered.
The king laughed. “This is exactly like our golden trumpets.”
If you live in the United States for very long, then you’ll entirely understand this incisive declaration. American media are concentrated in the hand of the super-rich, and no matter how they appear they all publish content that is to the advantage of capitalist financial cliques (资本财团). So-called “freedom of the press” is in fact freedom of capital. Perhaps sometimes different capitalist financial cliques will be in conflict, and perhaps at times they’ll roast the government over the grill. But the basic nature of media as beholden to capital will not change.
The most dazzling aspect of American press freedom and supervision is the way media often sing a different tune than the government. In the eyes of those who have a strong sense of righteousness, going against the government is the fullest expression of freedom, and it means carrying out supervision. Compared to other countries in the world, news media in the United States certainly do seem to care little about the government’s face. Nor do they fear the power of the government. They specialize, it seems, in going at odds with the government. Major newspapers are at odds with the federal government, and small newspapers are at odds with local governments. No politician in the United States is immune from criticism. The federal government has already been taken to task for 200 years in the United States, to the extent that this has become force of habit. If there’s no criticizing, people start to think something’s wrong. . . But if you think about it, is anyone really going to behave themselves just because they’ve been criticized in a newspaper?
According to From Washington to Obama: 200 Years of Family Politics in America, by Jing Huzi, the United States did not have the concept of freedom of the press during its colonial period, but there were not too many limitations on the news, because there weren’t so many papers anyhow. There were newspaper publishers from the time of the Franklin brothers, but papers at that time weren’t about providing information to the public, and they weren’t about monitoring the government — rather, they were a way of articulating the political views of the publishers themselves, most of whom opposed the government (which is to say, the English king).
[NOTE: This mysterious book was published by the Xinhua News Agency Publishing House in 2009, and written by the mysteriously prolific Jing Huzi (京虎子), or “Beijing Tiger Child.” This is possibly the nom de plume of a Party-backed group of writers.]
During the movement for the independence of the colonies, Samuel Adams published a newspaper. His goal in publishing a newspaper was not to supervise the administrator dispatched by Britain, nor was it to offer his opinions to the Massachusetts legislature. His goal was to spread the idea of independence, making people believe that independence was the only path open to the colonies. It was about getting his own views out in order to incite revolution and bring about independence. The costs of the newspaper were provided by John Hancock, so from the beginning public opinion [i.e., the content of the newspaper] was controlled in the hands of a wealthy [patron] and there was no notion whatsoever of independence of the news. Public opinion was controlled by Adams and a number of people who advocated independence, and this was an important reason why American independence could succeed.
After independence, Washington and Hamilton hoped to create a strong federal government, and so naturally they hoped there would be no messy speech [i.e., dissent]. Jefferson, on the other hand, and others who opposed federalism naturally hopes there would be dissent. Therefore, Jefferson elevated freedom of the press to a new high: “Our freedom rests upon freedom of the press, and if we limit the latter the former will be lost. . . ” [NOTE: Jefferson’s words in 1787 were: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
Freedom of the Press is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
This is the freedom of the press later so praised by Americans. This freedom was not mentioned in the Declaration of independence, nor was it mentioned in the Constitution. It was not until 1791 that it was set down with an amendment to the Constitution. Why was this content written into the Constitution in 1791?
It was because there were political parties.
Not long after this amendment appeared, the number of newspapers started to multiply. The proliferation of newspapers was not because freedom of expression was set down in the law, but because there were political parties. Between 1791 and 1792, the two earliest political parties in the United States were founded, the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party.
The first party to be formed was the Federalist Party. From Boston to Philadelphia, perhaps all of the newspapers at the time were talking about the advantages of forming a strong federal government. Soon after, the Democratic-Republican Party was formed and there was another wave of newspaper publishing — all of these newspapers talking about states’ rights and opposing a large federal government.
Before long newspaper publishing took off in cities across the United States. Generally, several hundred copies of each newspaper were published, mostly to attack the other side. When John Adams became president, the newspapers controlled by Jefferson and his clique issued daily attacks on the government . . .
If they relied on sales, not a single one of these newspapers would probably survive. But these papers continued to publish, because those who were printing them had plenty of money. The newspapers published by the Federalist Party were supported by Hamilton, and the newspapers controlled by the Democratic-Republican Party were supported by Jefferson. So from the beginning newspapers were controlled by powerful and influential families.
Regardless of who controlled the newspapers, during this period the freedom of public opinion in America was protected by the Constitution. But in 1798, when war broke out between the United States and France, the Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Act, which said that anyone conspiring to oppose federal law, provoking revolt or slandering the president or the Congress would be subject to fines up to 5,000 dollars and maximum prison sentences of five years.
This act went against the First Amendment of the Constitution and amounted to depriving Americans of their right to free speech. It meant that Americans could express no critical views of national policy or of the president.
The act was not just window dressing. In the two years from the act’s introduction to the end of Adams’ presidency, it was dutifully enforced by the government, and in all 24 newspaper distributors and editors were charged, 10 of them found guilty. These people were exclusively from the Democratic-Republican Party, the party opposed to that of President Adams, the Federalist Party that held the majority of seats in Congress.
We can basically say that in this period there was no freedom of the press — and even less was there anything resembling press supervision.
Among those convicted [under the Sedition Act] . . . was James Thomson Callender, a newspaperman in Philadelphia who specialized in publishing materials of a political nature. In 1797, he published a book that printed in full the love letters of Hamilton, all at once destroying Hamilton’s political prospects. [NOTE: Callender’s book, The Prospect Before Us, was sharply critical of the Adams administration and directly attacked the president.]
. . .
When Jefferson took the presidency in 1800, he pardoned those convicted under the Sedition Act and Callender was released from prison. Feeling that going to prison had been a great sacrifice for the Democratic-Republican Party, Callender requested the president appoint him as postmaster general of Richmond, Virginia.
Jefferson gave Callender no response, so all at once he changed, heading for a pro-Federalist Party newspaper to serve as editor, issuing constant attacks on President Jefferson. First, he accused Jefferson of bribing news reporters, which of course Jefferson denied. Callender responded immediately by publishing a letter that Jefferson had written him. It was at this point too that he revealed Jefferson’s longstanding romantic relationship with one of his slaves. This story was fatal to Jefferson’s moral reputation.
Of course Jefferson was furious at the noise Callender was making, so he had others go and dig up nastiness on Callender — for example, that he mistreated his wife. Jefferson’s supporters even physically attacked Callender. In 1803, Callender fell into the James River and drowned. It was said he had been drunk and didn’t know how to swim, but it was difficult for Jefferson and those around him to escape suspicion.
Callender was the originator of American freedom of the press, and the freedom of the press that he created was not a freedom about objectivity and impartiality, of the disinterested observer. It was about personal prejudice, and to a large extent about “going where the milk was.” When Jefferson was his gold master, he served the interests of Jefferson and attacked Hamilton. When he didn’t get the official post he wanted he started working for the Federalist camp, attacking Jefferson. This sort of freedom of the press is about serving the interests of influential families, mingled with prejudice and personal interest — because there is fundamentally nothing impartial about it.
It’s precisely because its been a tool of influential families, from that time all the way through to today, that the American press is so clearly different from that of European countries — especially fond of reporting bad news (so-called “muckraking”). News media have become base camps for social liberals and reformists, and they are attracted by that sort of news that challenges corporations, the government, the police, the military and other interest and power centers in society. The topics of their coverage are the greedy merchants, the politicians acting in collusion, the arrogant bureaucrats, sadistic generals and cruel police. The describe the poor, minorities, the elderly and the working class as those sacrificed by extreme greed and political ignorance, by the coldness of high officials. They are particularly inclined to draw their information from liberal and reform-inclined special interest groups, and they maintain skepticism toward information from the government, corporations and the scientific community. It is precisely because their channels for obtaining information are already insufficiently objective or non-objective that their reports have a short supply of objectivity and are extremely one-sided.
American news media seldom expend great energy to report about the debauched private lives of this or that business person, even though this would be equally brilliant. . . What they love most is nasty news about political figures, because this is the way they can reach their goal — and that is, political struggle (政治斗争).
The wealthy and influential from various regions rely on the media they control to leverage negative news as tools against their opponents. And the vast majority of those political figures attacked by the news media are political figures who emerged without money or connections, especially those who are from poorer backgrounds and have relied on their own efforts to become visible figures in politics. The effect of these news reports is to draw people’s attention away from the powerful and influential and the fact that they control politics. This is the goal that the media seek behind the scenes.
. . .
In order to protect national sovereignty, the government of no country on earth would allow language in the media that encourages national division, exacerbates domestic tensions or incites revolt against the government. It’s difficult to imagine any country allowing within its system a “freedom of the press” that goes against its national interest.
The fact of national interest makes it such that media control is a line that sovereign nations today must draw.
Freedom of the press is a common ideal pursued by humanity. The pursuit of freedom of the press is a gradual, historical process of constant improvement that has no end. And appropriate news controls are a constant companion in the development of freedom of the press — they are a method of both checking freedom of the press and protecting freedom of the press.
But out of their own private interests, liberal media in China on the one hand turn a blind eye to and refuse to talk about American controls on the news, and on the other hand criticize China’s legal controls that seek to uphold the country’s national interest, their goal being to create confusion.