In the US, we proudly point to the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights that was adopted in 1791:
“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.”
We believe that our freedom of speech and of the press are two of the ways the US differs from more dictatorial nations such as Germany under the Nazis and the former Soviet Union.
Unfortunately, these freedoms are not as absolute as they sound. As Howard Zinn pointed out in an excellent piece that should be read by all, we cannot rely on this amendment to protect our freedoms of speech or press. For example, just seven years after the Bill of Rights was adopted, the John Adams administration thought that war with France was a strong possibility. Congress then passed the Alien and Sedition Acts that explicitly abridged these freedoms. The Sedition Act made it a crime for American citizens to “print, utter, or publish…any false, scandalous, and malicious writing” about the government. Fortunately, the Sedition Act expired in 1801.
Shortly after the US entered WWI, Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917. This Act was similar but broader than the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Further, the Wilson administration determined that any written materials violating the act or otherwise “urging treason” were also “nonmailable matter.”
The Wilson administration particularly targeted: 1) the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the union that was the most radical, antiwar, and uncompromising in standing up for workers’ rights; and 2) the strongly antiwar, pro-human rights campaigner and then four-time Presidential candidate Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party. By 1918, in actions that seriously threatened First Amendment freedoms, the Post Office denied mailing privileges for 74 newspapers, including the IWW’s newspapers and those of the Socialist Party.
There is much more that could be said about the attacks on the freedom of speech and of the press. However, it is also important to consider the ability to have your speech amplified. As Zinn pointed out: “In other words, freedom of speech is not simply a yes or no question. It is also a “how much” question. And how much freedom we have depends on how much money we have, what power we have, and what resources we have for reaching large numbers of people.” Zinn also quoted the writer A.J. Liebling who said: “The person who has freedom of the press is the person who owns one.”
Over the years, vitally important restrictions on the ownership of the news media have been greatly weakened, leading to a consolidation of the mainstream news media under the control of giant corporations, hedge funds and wealthy individuals. Unsurprisingly, their interests do not necessarily align with the best interests of the nation or of the great majority of the population.
For example, the mainstream news media coverage reflects a strong bias against: Medicare for All, an increase in taxes on the wealthy, limits on corporate mergers, controlling the price of prescription drugs, unions, and ending war.
During the Cold War, there was a very apt anecdote about Pravda and the New York Times. It stated the difference between Pravda and the New York Times is that Pravda readers knew they were being lied to. Disappointingly, even now many people in the US still don’t get this anecdote. In addition, the mainstream media suppresses news stories that don’t fit their narrative.
One story that the mainstream media has strongly suppressed is the December 5, 2017 testimony before the House Intelligence Committee from Shawn Henry. Henry was President of the cyber-security firm CrowdStrike, the company that accused Russia of hacking the Democratic Party’s emails in 2016. In response to a question from Representative Adam Schiff, one of the most vocal Russiagate supporters, Henry, who was now under oath, said he had no concrete evidence of a hack. Schiff was able to keep this admission undercutting the Russian hack idea from being released until May 7, 2020. Even then, this vitally important story was suppressed by most of the mainstream media. Perhaps those reporters in the media who helped to spread the Russian hack story were afraid the Henry testimony would clearly demonstrate that they failed to check the accuracy of the claims they had reported for months.
In foreign policy, the mainstream media strongly supports the government through spreading its propaganda. By now it’s not debatable that George W. Bush administration lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. However, mainstream media (with a few honorable exceptions) abrogated its responsibility to the public by not challenging the lies. Even worse, the media spread those lies to the US public and the world. MSNBC had one program, its highest rated program, hosted by Phil Donahue that challenged the Bush administration’s claims. However, MSNBC canceled the program about one month before the US illegally attacked Iraq.
Before the US war crime in Iraq, there was the US war crime against Vietnam. After WWII, the Truman administration thwarted the Vietnamese independence effort by returning control of Vietnam to France, Vietnam’s former colonial master. The independent Vietnamese movement rejected this betrayal and eventually defeated the French despite strong US support for the French forces. The terms for ending the struggle called for a free election in 1956. However, the Eisenhower administration acted against democracy by setting up a puppet government in South Vietnam and preventing the election. Would the US have attacked Vietnam if the US media had informed the US public of this shameful history?
There are numerous other horrific examples of US crimes unknown to the US public, e.g., see William Blum’s masterful Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II. Julian Assange is one of several courageous whistleblowers who followed in the footsteps of Daniel Ellsberg (The Pentagon Papers) and have laid bare more of US criminal behavior. The US relentless and despicable persecution of Assange is major risk to the freedom of the press. Foolishly, the US press has not strongly pushed back against this present threat to press freedom.
The Biden administration and the complicit media’s current propaganda campaign is about the Russian war with Ukraine and NATO. The US claims that the Russian attack was unprovoked. The mainstream media mostly ignores voices challenging this blatantly false claim. Other media sources challenging the claim such as RT (formerly Russia Today) are also taken off the air. Would the US public be so supportive of this highly dangerous war with Russia if the mainstream media had provided the context, including the long history of US provocations? So much for the US media accurately informing the public.
Ron Forthofer is a retired professor of biostatistics, having taught at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston. Since retirement in 1991, has been an activist for peace and social justice. He ran for Congress and for governor of Colorado for the Green Party.