Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the US said were it left to him 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”.
Champions of the press freedom have quoted him to underline the importance of the press in the social life of a nation. But sometimes lost to this discourse is the kind of time Jefferson was speaking, and who the man himself was. Jefferson had a colourful history. Tracing his background back to England, he was born in Virginia where he rose to become a governor.
A trained lawyer, he participated in the drafting of the American constitution and had clear ideological bent contributing to the liberal constitution that American ended up with. He then became America’s ambassador to France before returning to his homeland where he was appointed Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs under President George Washington.
Jefferson then became a running mate for John Adams, and served as Vice President, before succeeding John Adams in 1801. Before joining politics, Jefferson was himself a correspondent and a writer. His thoughts on the importance of press, are thus not made in a vacuum, or by somebody who did not understand the media terrain, but by a professional.
However, Jefferson practiced the trade in a completely different context where ethics prevailed, public relations was still to emerge as a field of interest and practice, journalism was not a profession, indeed was a practice by those probably in the fringes of society and while there were forces interested in influencing the media those forces could clearly be seen and were easy to identify.
The forces included the royalty, at the time seen largely as a factor in European politics and from which the settlers in the Americas, the latter of which Jefferson was part of, were running away from. The royals were viewed with disdain by the pilgrims.
It is sometimes difficult to argue that today government and the press have, in some cases, rolled into one. Today the media has emerged as a strong institution and too often not independent from other major interests. Among the interests in the media today are commercial investments in the media, organised governments structured to deal with the press in ways that Jefferson would probably not have imagined. But the influences do not stop there.
Public relations has emerged as a strong force with singular determination to manipulate the press and influence the direction of its reportage. And while the media has grown as an institution, and as an academic discipline, too often it has remained quietly unalarmed by the influence of public relations to its practice.
Even governments that in Jefferson’s era looked disapprovingly at the press now actively court the media, having the media tag along and sometimes sing its praises without much thought. Not only that, there are many instances where governments or those in power are themselves media owners.
Then in the middle of all these the ethical standards for journalists in some parts of the world provide interesting case studies of willing recipients of proceedings of corrupt dealings. When the Jubilee leadership came to power and invited the press for a breakfast at State House, it was a sight to behold. Jefferson also said “No government ought to be without censors; and where the press is free no one ever will”.
Of course there is always contention on the definition of the term “free”. But the government does not have to hold a gun to the head of the press to control it. Often the press can be allowed to roam freely too often not even aware that its roaming is controlled. Would Jefferson have said the “press is the best instrument for enlightening the mind of man, and inspiring him as a rational, moral and social being” if he lived in our era?
We have too many forces behind the scenes that choke the media of the liberties that would otherwise allow it to thrive within the context of Jefferson’s interpretation. That is the challenge the society faces today. How can the press be reclaimed back by the forces of innocence so that it can still serve purely as the voice of conscience and not just as vox populi? Writer is Dean, School of Communications, Language and Performing Arts at Daystar University