As America celebrates its birthday today, I figured it would be a good time to take a look at one of our basic freedoms outlined in the First Amendment. The idea for this blog post came from a recent conversation I had on Facebook regarding the recent Supreme Court decision on the healthcare law. Given the fact that I was raised in a very conservative/Republican environment, most of my friends come from a similar persuasion and since I disagreed with them on the Affordable Care Act, a very spirited discussion was had. The one thing that came out that was very revealing to me (but not surprising) was that, for the most part, it was apparent they got their news from Fox News and other conservative media outlets. I should note that I do not fault my friends for getting their news from a source of similar ideology as I think it is only natural to gravitate towards that with which we agree. I only ask “Is this wise?”
Throughout my adult life, I have taken great pride in the fact that I try and get my news from a variety of sources. In fact, I often joke that the only way to truly get "fair and balanced" news was by watching an hour of Fox News followed by an hour of MSNBC. And actually that is what I have always tried to do – follow both the conservative and liberal media outlets. If you check my "most visited" websites on my Internet browser at work (which is where I check news the most online), you will find MSNBC in the #1 position and Fox News in the #2 position. It is a very interesting study in mass media to follow both websites as they vary greatly in both how they present a story and what they think the top news story of the day is. For instance, the day the Supreme Court decision was handed down I had to chuckle at the way the news organizations handle their website that day. For starters, MSNBC was the first to declare that the Supreme Court had upheld the healthcare reform law while Fox News was the last of the three cable news organizations to report that the Supreme Court had upheld the law. The philosophical differences between the two organizations did not stop there. Of course, there was the obvious difference between them as to what they even called the law with MSNBC referring to the "healthcare law" and Fox News calling it “Obamacare." However, the most interesting part came later in the day when the House voted to find the Attorney General in contempt of Congress. Fox News immediately changed its head story to the House vote while MSNBC put the news up regarding the House vote, but kept the Supreme Court decision as the top story.
The reason I follow both the conservative and liberal news organizations goes back to my college days. As I said, I grew up being very conservative/Republican and the college I attended leaned to the right on political issues to say the least. During that time, I read a lot of the conservative commentators such as Cal Thomas and William F. Buckley. A college professor for whom I had a lot of respect questioned why I only read commentators from the right and why I didn't read any liberal commentators. She followed up by asking, “Are you worried they will change your mind?" All she was trying to do was get me to think critically, but that one question changed the way I researched and looked at news. I started reading the op-eds of liberals in the paper along with the same conservative commentators that I had read before. For the most part, I found it did not change my opinion, rather it reinforced why I believed, what I believed. In fact, I have found that my transformation of political philosophy has had less to do with the commentators that I read and more to do with the actual facts themselves. In other words, I was now using the news as a tool to help inform my opinion rather than shape it.
This brings me to the purpose of this post. I believe our Freedom of Press has allowed us to develop a culture where people do not challenge their assumptions and only gravitate towards that with which they already agree. The left has MSNBC and the New York Times, while the right has Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. If you only watch and read that with which you agree already, your beliefs and political positions are never challenged and this only serves to reinforce the positions you already hold. All of this is the natural byproduct of our consumer culture as the media is only providing what the masses want – news and opinions with which they already agree. In other words, one of the great freedoms that we are promised in our Bill of Rights has, in many ways, unwittingly led to a more divided nation – not a stronger one.
So what is the solution? As with all our basic freedoms, the freedoms we are promised must be tempered with individual responsibility. Freedom of Speech requires that individuals behave responsibly with that freedom and not abuse it by spreading false information or creating undue panic – the old yelling “FIRE!” in a crowded theater. Freedom of Religion requires us to practice our religion in a way that allows others to practice their religion (or lack thereof) as well. The Right to Bear Arms requires individuals to behave responsibly with firearms so that they do not fall into the wrong hands. I could go on, but I think the point is clear that individual responsibility plays a large role in the preservation of our freedoms.
Freedom of the Press is no different. While many people would view the responsibility of this freedom to fall on the press itself, I would challenge all of us to act responsibly with this freedom as well. Certainly the press has the responsibility to report in a professional manner and with the truth, but as I stated above in our current mass media culture, the media will provide what the public wants – which is to be told that with which they already agree. To combat this, the responsibility once again falls on the individual and we all must do our part in trying to get our news from multiple sources and even those with whom we know we will disagree. So in honor of your freedom on this Fourth of July, read, watch or listen to something that you know has the opposite political view. As my college professor asked, “are you worried it will change your mind?"