Don't Worry About the Free Press - Worry About Free Thinking

Concerns about media bias and fake news are valid. Some claim the free press is out of control - others that it's under attack. But the state of the "free press" is not the greatest cause for concern. Our ability to think about what it offers, without emotional and logical blinders, is what should worry us more.

Thomas Jefferson came to abhor newspapers once he became president (and subject to their daily attacks), writing in 1814 that "I deplore... the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them . . . This has, in a great degree, been produced by the violence and malignity of party spirit." He should have known of course, having put a man on his Department of State payroll in 1791 for the express purpose of starting a newspaper to attack the Washington administration in which he served.

Yet then, as now, the sheer number and diversity of information outlets was an antidote to the dangers of the "mendacious spirit." Jefferson appreciated this, at least in theory. Writing from Paris in 1787 he had said that "were if 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 then he added an essential caveat: "But I should mean that every man should receive these papers & be capable of reading them."

The free press will continue. The question, as Jefferson rightly posed it, is whether we receive this information and are capable of critically reading it.

To receive diverse views, you have to be open to hearing them. Yet too many live in political "echo chambers," where they only access sources supporting pre-existing views. A 2012 Pew Research survey found that 78 percent of those who listen to Sean Hannity are conservatives while only 5 percent are liberals. The numbers are nearly reversed for Rachel Madow, 57 percent of whose listeners are liberals while only 7 percent are conservatives. Selective attention leads to confirmation bias. It also produces group polarization - the more people surround themselves with like thinking, the more extreme their views become.

Were everyone adept at critically evaluating information, Jefferson's second criterion might be met, but this is a tough challenge. Neuroscience shows that emotions get engaged before reason and can block or overcome it. In short, the logical brain comes up with reasons for what the emotional brain has already decided. In such an environment, potentially disconfirming facts become "inconvenient truths," losing their legitimacy as they are rationalized away.

This is the human condition. It is not new, but something else is. In the Internet connected twenty-first century, the reach of biased and fake news and the power of poor thinking can spread faster and create widespread damage. In Jefferson's day, a political lie might take weeks to spread beyond a small readership. Today, a lie spreads nearly instantaneously, globally, and thus may be widely accepted before proven false. Even then, the knowledge that it is a lie gets less attention than the lie itself.

Thinking freely - without the blinders of preformed views, emotions, and rationalization - is the only antidote to the dangers that come with today's free press. But a vaccine is ineffective if unused. This has implications for the media, how government supports free expression, and for those who educate citizens in their democratic obligations.

Clearly, some in the media and politics have little interest in accuracy or objectivity. That only increases the need for respectable media sources and watchdogs to strengthen their own credibility, monitor and critique the veracity of "news" and politicians, and improve the ethics of their profession, including visible and meaningful sanctions for abuse.

Governmental regulation of the free press is anathema, but that does not mean government should not ask: what can be done, consistent with the First Amendment, to prevent intentionally fake news? Calling attention to the problem and showering shame on those who would subvert democracy are minimally necessary tasks. Politicians also have a moral obligation to speak truthfully. When they lie, they weaken the democratic process. One famous politician instead argued that leaders must "appeal to the feelings of the public rather than to their reasoning ability. . . . The less science is involved and the more emotions are involved, the more complete the success will be . . . " That leader, Adolph Hitler, was speaking in Mein Kampf, his Machiavellian handbook.

Our schools, at all levels, must do better in training students to separate fact from feeling and to apply critical thinking to what the press/media offer. Laziness in thinking is neglecting one's moral duty in a democracy.

Like every other freedom, freedom of the press comes with responsibility. If we shirk it, a free press will make us less free.