Freedom of the Press

I had a discussion recently with a friend regarding sensationalistic television news stories in the United States and what it says about our society in general. The discussion was provoked by a local Bay Area television news story which targeted the fears and frustrations of drivers concerning high gasoline prices in California. Rather than addressing the root causes of rising petroleum price or the strong economic arguments behind high consumption taxes on fossil fuels, the story instead targeted the anger and frustration of lower-income, uninformed drivers.

I have almost completely given up consuming television news media, but these stories get to the heart of the failure of modern American "democracy". The founders of the United States realised that freedom of the press and more abstractly, freedom of information, was fundamental to the proper functioning of a representative republic where the will of the masses translates ultimately into political policy and law. Unfortunately, the capitalist environment in which this "free press" operates, has transformed mass media into either infotainment, sensationalism, or fear-mongering. The purpose is simply to sell advertising by any psychological technique necessary to attract viewership and boost ratings. A society whose press is controlled by commercial interests is arguably as bad as or worse than one with governmental controls over the dissemination of information. The same distortions and manipulations are possible: media-driven public support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq proves the point.

The makers of the gasoline price stories are probably reasonably intelligent people of above average education. They likely understand that raising gasoline prices and especially raising prices through taxation are extremely beneficial overall to the global economy and environment. However, the stories lament high gasoline taxes, claiming they are an injustice. Ignoring economists or sensible policy makers who might actually enlighten the public, they focus on the petty frustrations of gasoline consumers of low education and attempt to elicit similar anxieties in the viewer and thereby making the viewer more likely to sit through the commercial. The wider repercussions of misinforming the public are of no concern to the television producers. En masse, people are controlled by fear, not responsibility. Their consumption of information and their political reactions will follow the same overall trend.

As a college student exploring the ideas of libertarianism, one of the strongest arguments I found for maintaining a government paternalistic presence in the media was the manifestly brilliant quality of BBC, PBS, NPR and other publicly sponsored media in stark contrast to the base intellectual standards and low overall quality of commercially driven and advertisement interrupted media. While a high value should be placed on freedom and choice, it should not completely supersede pragmatism, efficiency, and social progress.

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