All Commentary
Sunday, September 1, 1996

Individual Liberty and the Media

Members of the Press Are Not Much Concerned with Freedom

The task in this issue of The Freeman has been to bring together some good discussions of the relationship between individual liberty and the nature and conduct of the media. It was tempting to go beyond this rather narrow focus because of the media’s many dimensions.

Poor reporting vis-a-vis science, religion, and politics is legion and much space could be devoted to the subject of journalistic ethics alone. Editorial and business decisions also deserve scrutiny.

The task here, however, was narrower. We decided to explore the ways in which various members and institutions of the media treat the free marketplace as a reflection of their regard for individual liberty.

A few additional observations are in order.

First, the printed press itself is a fairly special case of the media, although broadcast news programs and magazines show similarities. Print journalists are completely protected from government regulation, unlike, say, doctors or auto mechanics. Indeed, it is arguable that government (at various levels) discriminates against a great many professionals in our country—except those who work for the press. Yet, curiously, those folks generally lack any concern for any threat to the liberty of other professionals. One need but read the transcripts of press conferences with powerful politicians to discover that members of the press are not much concerned with freedom. Instead, as a group, they pretty much embrace the urgent need for more and more government regulation of all other facets of our culture, except, of course, the press.

Second, with so many organs of the media located near centers of political power, the press is inclined to champion public policies that further shift “the action” to governments. Washington, Albany, Sacramento, and other capitals are where journalists work and live and where they can draw on cheap raw materials for their productive purposes, namely, politicians and bureaucrats. The Sunday morning news programs on the major networks rarely if ever feature commentators from Shreveport, Louisiana, or Bowling Green, Ohio. The same folks who write for the major weeklies or the dailies are the ones who show up to offer their comments on world and national affairs, week after week. It is pretty inconsistent for a group of professionals so committed to egalitarian principles to almost never call upon commentators from beyond the Washington, D.C., Beltway.

Given the inclination of the press and the special protection it enjoys, it is fairly clear that there is a serious threat to human liberty. It would certainly be a wonderful sign of progress if at least some of the top journalists recognized this and made some attempt to remedy matters, not by calling for regulation and censorship of the press but by advocating greater freedom for other professionals who now do not enjoy protections comparable to the First Amendment.

Finally, it never hurts to stress a familiar point about freedom and the media, one that defenders of freedom of expression—speech, art, entertainment, news, scholarship, and the rest—tend to forget: the intimate connection between the right to property and the right to free expression.

This is especially germane because of the current growth of the Internet and other sorts of electronic communication and information storage.

A significant problem with the Internet, for example, is the muddiness of its ownership status. There is a parallel between the way corporate commerce started in history, namely, within the framework of mercantilist political economic systems, and how the Internet was established by the Department of Defense. The historical origin of corporate commerce has given many foes of freedom the chance to advocate government control by reference to the “creature of the State” argument. People who want to censor the Internet now make similar arguments.

In the defense of all types of liberty, the freedom to privately own and use property is crucial. The freedom of the media itself depends, ironically, on something about which the media’s professionals ignore: the right to private property!


—Tibor R. Machan

Guest Editor

Specific Forms of Liberty

Freedom of speech and of the press are specific forms of liberty, with special relevance for the work of intellectuals; but there is no valid distinction in importance between these and other forms of liberty. Intellectual freedom is necessary because man needs knowledge of reality, and such knowledge is the product of independent minds. But material goods are no less important, and they too are the products of independent minds. An intellectual properly objects when he is prevented from speaking because someone else does not like the content of his thought. But exactly the same injustice occurs when a businessman is prevented from offering a new product, or completing a merger, or firing a worker. He is being prevented from translating an idea into reality because someone else does not like the content of his thought; he is being prevented from using his mind freely.

—David Kelley

The Freeman, October 1975

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.