Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Abuse, free speech and the media: observations from history

Who said:
"In the conduct of my newspaper, I carefully excluded all libelling and personal abuse, which is of late years become so disgraceful to our country. Whenever I was solicited to insert anything of that kind, and the writers pleaded, as they generally did, the liberty of the press, and that a newspaper was like a stagecoach, in which any one who would pay had a right to a place, my answer was, that I would print the piece separately if desired, and the author might have as many copies as he pleased to distribute himself, but that I would not take upon me to spread his detraction; and that, having contracted with my subscribers to furnish them with what might be either useful or entertaining, I could not fill their papers with private altercation, in which they had no concern, without doing them manifest injustice. Now, many of our printers make no scruple of gratifying the malice of individuals by false accusations of the fairest characters among ourselves, augmenting animosity even to the producing of duels; and are, moreover, so indiscreet as to print scurrilous reflections on the government of neighboring states, and even on the conduct of our best national allies, which may be attended with the most pernicious consequences. These things I mention as a caution to young printers, and that they may be encouraged not to pollute their presses and disgrace their profession by such infamous practices, but refuse steadily, as they may see by my example that such a course of conduct will not, on the whole, be injurious to their interests."
I'm tempted to comment on how modern media conglomorates, public and private, fail so miserably to match his ideals but from Benjamin Franklin's perspective, for it was he who penned those lines, that would make me as abusive and unsavory as those I had the cheek to criticise. Franklin's view, as a young man, of the politics of the 1700s is also worth pondering:
"Observations on my reading history, in Library, May 19th, 1731.
"That the great affairs of the world, the wars, revolutions, etc., are carried on and affected by parties.
"That the view of these parties is their present general interest, or what they take to be such.
"That the different views of these different parties occasion all confusion.
"That while a party is carrying on a general design, each man has his particular private interest in view.
"That as soon as a party has gain'd its general point, each member becomes intent upon his particular interest; which, thwarting others, breaks that party into divisions, and occasions more confusion.
"That few in public affairs act from a meer view of the good of their country, whatever they may pretend; and, tho' their actings bring real good to their country, yet men primarily considered that their own and their country's interest was united, and did not act from a principle of benevolence.
"That fewer still, in public affairs, act with a view to the good of mankind."
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.