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Who would have thought that an administration so favored by America’s press establishment would be the one that declared war on the news media and the First Amendment?
That’s just what Barack Obama’s White House seems to have done.
We’ve got two shocking examples now to contemplate:
- The Justice Department’s targeting of phone records at the largest news-gathering agency in the world – the Associated Press. Almost nothing has been revealed about the details and the motivations behind this scandal that broke earlier this year.
- Now we learn the administration also targeted a Washington Times reporter whose notes were confiscated in a raid on her home last week.
What’s going on here?
As someone who has been in the news business for 35 years – doing virtually everything one can do, from being as investigative reporter, foreign correspondent, editor-in-chief of major-market dailies, founder of the first independent online news agency, I’ve been thinking about this shocking development. It’s of great historical significance. It’s also a disastrous sign for our free society.
Several years ago, I wrote a book called “Stop the Presses! The Inside Story of the New Media Revolution.” In it I chronicled the history of the free press. I learned some very surprising things about the history of the free press that may explain why this vital institution is under direct threat today.
While we associate respect for and defense of a free press today with modern “liberalism,” that’s just not borne out by history.
In researching one chapter in my book, I found the following:
- The history of the free press is very short.
- It was birthed, quite literally, in the colonies of 18th century America.
- The institution of the free press is uniquely American.
- The institution of the free press is uniquely Christian.
While it may seem counterintuitive that a “progressive,” secular administration would be the one to declare war on the free press in the 21st century, this largely unknown history explains why no one should be surprised by the actions of the Obama administration.
First the history: Let’s start with the technology that made the free press possible. It was Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press that paved the way for pamphleteers and newspaper publishers. But that wasn’t Gutenberg’s goal. Nor did he ever use the printing press for that purpose. He had one goal in mind – to make the Bible available to the masses. And he succeeded, even though he died in abject poverty.
But others did use his invention to disseminate news and opinion and stir lively debate. Unfortunately, most of those who did experiment with such initiatives in Europe quickly found themselves at odds with kings and rulers who did not look fondly on them.
It was not until Increase Mather, an 18th century Puritan minister in the American colonies, began developing and publishing his “news sermons” that an early form of printed journalism became widely popular for the first time. No one went to jail.
Then came Peter Zenger, another Christian, who published a newspaper in the colonies that was critical of public officials. He was not so fortunate. Though he was never indicted or convicted of any wrongdoing, he spent a year in jail before he was vindicated in a famous trial that most journalism students read about. What they don’t learn was his motivation. Zenger was a devout Christian whose highest motivation was seeking the truth.
This pattern continued right through the 19th century.
Henry Raymond founded one of the most famous press institutions in America – the New York Times. But he bore little resemblance to the publishers of the Time today. Raymond’s motivation was his strong Christian worldview. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that the New York Times came to fame as a crusading anti-abortion newspaper that exposed the horrors of the procedures in a series of investigative reports in the paper’s early years.
Raymond was hardly alone as a Christian publisher. In the middle of the 19th century, there were 52 Christian newspapers and magazines in New York City alone. Indeed, virtually every major city in America had at least one overtly Christian newspaper serving it in the 1850s.
That’s a very brief synopsis of what I found in my research and published in “Stop the Presses!” I don’t mind telling you that it’s worth the price of the book for this one chapter.
So should we be surprised in today’s post-Christian, America-bashing culture that the free press is under assault? Not at all.
While we may take the free press for granted, its history is amazingly short – frighteningly short.
There’s one more aspect to this story that no one even in the press seems to understand.
Why do we have a First Amendment providing specific constitutional protections to the press?
America’s founders were so brilliant that they enshrined special protections for the press because they intuitively understood it was a critical way to keep government under control – to have what we call “a fourth estate” to watchdog the three branches of government.
The central role of a free press in a free society is to serve as a watchdog on government, exposing fraud, waste, abuse and corruption wherever and whenever it is found, no matter who is perpetrating it. The founders knew that – even though they had no historical precedent on which to base their assumption! Isn’t that amazing? They built into their system of constitutionally limited government many checks and balances on the powers of government. The First Amendment protection of the press was one of them.
What is it about the American founders that made them so smart?
They, too, got their wisdom from their grounding in the Bible. Even the most skeptical of them were learned in the scriptures. Many of them read the Bible in the original languages on a daily basis. They were Christians. So it was Christians who gave us the free press. Pretty ironic, huh? Just look at the hostility to and disdain for Christianity from within the press today!
Again, I explore all of this in much more depth in “Stop the Presses!” I’ve realized only recently how this book has become more relevant than ever – as a “liberal,” “progressive,” post-American and post-Christian administration goes to war with the press.