The American Press

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Doctors bury their mistakes; lawyers hide them in impenetrable prose; architects plant vines. But newspaper editors, whose only stock is the partial or false information we call news, have to live with the fact that they will be caught out in public daily. The agony stops only when they are retired to the Old Editors’ Home on the hill, and who really knows what goes on there? Good editors, like Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post , who is interviewed in this issue, believe that newspapers are the “first rough draft of history.” Very rough indeed, we’d add, knowing well that the face of history itself only seems to be smooth because the splotches and warts are lost in the receding distance. Like news, history is never fully finished but must be continually reshaped and modified as new documents, new insights, and new errors emerge.

To ask indignantly how newspapers can dare to be as wrong as they are is naïve. First reports are always garbled, and newspapers deal with them as best they can between deadlines. Sources turn out to have lied, the reporter misunderstands or doesn’t have time to check or has an ax to grind, or there simply may not be enough information to give a full picture of the event. Should we ban all news, then, until some council of wise men shall have decided that the truth is finally in? If so, the cry of “Stop the presses!” would be heard in the land for the last time and the essential fragment of truth that newspapers do convey would be lost—and with it, one of the foundations of our republic.

It’s probably not unhealthy that Americans have always been suspicious of the press. We have all been shocked by the errors in a newspaper account of an event of which we have personal knowledge. And yet, if that same event is not reported at all, we are disappointed. Truly infuriating is the story that doesn’t make us look good. How humiliating and, if the issue is one of state, how treacherous and disloyal!

The truth is we all want freedom of speech and the press for ourselves. Everyone else goes too far and should be restrained. Some of the Founding Fathers understood this paradox of human nature and addressed it in the First Amendment: if any of us can be forced to shut up, they said, then there is no freedom for the rest. (Robert Friedman explores the implications of all this on page 16.)

As for A. J. Liebling’s dictum that the only people who can exercise freedom of the press are the owners of the press, the history of free expression in this country—rocky moments notwithstanding—belies him. In our time any idea, any program, any scheme, and any argument finds its miserable or glorious day in the sun. And if worst comes to worst, you can always publish your message by Xerox and hand-deliver it unhindered. Of course, if you are thinking of setting up full-time, it does help to start with twenty-five million dollars or so.

Newspapers are the flawed but often courageous exemplars of the right to speak out. That is why A MERICAN H ERITAGE devotes so much space this month to the history and state of the American press.

Let ’em roll.