The First Amendment and the Failure of a Free Press

RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., October 26, 2012 – There is an inherent responsibility that goes with “freedom of the press” under the First Amendment. In this year’s Presidential election, it has become painfully apparent that the media has abandoned that responsibility.

The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom…of the press.” The Framers believed that a free press was necessary to protect the People. A free press embodied the independent mechanism by which the Framers could guarantee that falsehoods would be exposed and that the facts would be delivered to assure an informed electorate.  Unfortunately, those days are long gone.

Today, the press is far from free. In fact, with rare exceptions, it seems to carry an enormous price tag. Nowhere is the decay of the press more evident than in its treatment of the Presidential campaign.

Coverage is driven more by ratings than by responsibility; more by money than by merit.

I must confess that perhaps I am biased in my assessment. My father was in the newspaper business. I grew up around men and women whom I can best describe as “serious reporters.” They didn’t need to call themselves journalists to fulfill a narcissistic need for acceptance.  Instead, they let their actions speak every bit as loudly as their words.

Reporters were driven to surface the truth. They worked endless hours for meager wages. Their real compensation was in having the knowledge that they served their readers with integrity. In return, they were revered by the general public.

This phenomenon wasn’t restricted to those in the newspaper business. It clearly extended to the news anchors on radio and television, and the true broadcast journalists who commanded respect because they had earned it.

Today, far too many “journalists” have been led to believe they are celebrities and, as celebrities, that their opinions matter more than the facts. It has become increasingly difficult to read, watch or listen to their biased delivery of the news.

During the 2012 Presidential election, they clearly picked their Party early. The progressive side of the media had an easier time since their candidate was essentially ordained to represent the Democratic Party. The conservative element of the media had to wait until the Republican Party finally settled on its standard bearer.

Both sides made a veritable fortune from the bloodbath of Republican debates. When that political equivalent of reality TV concluded, the traditional mudslinging began; yet another bonanza of advertising dollars.

Hundreds of millions of dollars poured into media of all kinds. The marketing products were generally devoid of substance and almost always bereft of any semblance of integrity. By November 6th, the two major Parties will have run approximately 3.6 million campaign ads.

You should ask yourself, “Why?”

The unadulterated truth is that the Parties are engaging in behavioral modification. They wish to create a belief that their “opponent” is so satanic that life on Earth will cease to exist if he is elected. It is a strategy that appeals to our basic instinct of survival and is firmly rooted in fear.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Today, we live in a political environment that is predicated upon fear. Think about it.

Of course, the media was quick to learn that money could be made upon fostering the fear; not only directly through political ads but by the ratings surge that impacted other ad rates (i.e., the bigger the “share,” the more the media can charge for ads).

As a result, the media plays favorites. One side panders to the progressive element, and one side panders to the conservative element.

The candidates themselves are relevantly unimportant since they are essentially only puppets in the play. Of course, they will carry the torches of their respective Parties because they owe their Parties hundreds of millions of dollars. This benefits the media because it makes the storylines easier to prepare. The stories, scripts, and headlines can be prepared in advance because there is almost no risk of being confronted by an original thought.

This paradigm works well for the Parties and the media because it allows both to segment their audiences demographically. In turn, this promotes more cost-effective marketing. The Parties and the media can target specific segments of our society rather than having to actually address the public at large.

From a marketing perspective, it is unfortunate that the Constitution began with the words “We the People.” Had it begun with “We the white, Protestant, unemployed, single females, between the ages of 20 and 24” or “We the Hispanic, Catholic, small business owner, married males between the ages of 45 and 50,” things would be so much easier for the Parties and the media.

If you don’t believe this, go to the President’s website store and see what is for sale. President Obama was positioned to be our Nation’s great “Uniter;” the one who would bring us together rather than drive us apart. Notice the themes you can purchase from his website’s store (listed alphabetically):

  • African Americans for Obama
  • Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Obama
  • Environmentalists for Obama
  • Hispanics for Obama
  • Jewish Americans for Obama
  • Latinos for Obama
  • LGBT for Obama
  • Nurses for Obama
  • Veterans and Military Families for Obama
  • Women for Obama

Lest you believe that the divisive focus is unique to one Party, visit Governor Romney’s website store where you can buy theme-based items as follows (listed alphabetically):

  • Catholics for Romney
  • Coal Country for Romney
  • I’m a Mom for Romney
  • Juntos con Romney
  • Veterans for Romney
  • Women for Romney
  • Young Americans for Romney

[As an aside, I am the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States. If you visit my website, you will not find a store. It’s not because we couldn’t build one or couldn’t stock it with tchotchke items to raise more money. It’s because I’m a serious candidate for the Office of President of the United States, and I believe that Office deserves our highest degree of respect.]

The media doesn’t really care which candidate is elected because it doesn’t impact cash flow either way. The Parties have come to accept the fact that they will trade “wins” over time, so that isn’t an issue either. As long as no one new is allowed to enter the picture, everything will be just fine…and that is the problem.

The traditional media is complicit in maintaining the status quo the Parties fight so desperately to preserve. Once the news media became a profit center, it defaulted to only tracking those candidates “who have a chance to win.”  The reality is that the media’s refusal to report the existence of candidates, who either cannot afford to buy ads or who do not believe their candidacy should be marketed as if it were a cheap product, precludes such candidates from gaining sufficient exposure to have a serious impact on the election.

There is no need to fear that Congress shall ever be tempted to “make (a) law…abridging the freedom…of the press.” The press has effectively restricted its own freedom. It has sacrificed its autonomy for the seductive lure of the Parties’ money and for the ease of only reporting the news that is delivered to its doorstep.

Vetting legitimate independent and third-party candidates would require a dedication to presenting the truth that seems to have eroded over time. It would require real work.

A few of the Parties, such as the Libertarian Party and the Green Party have sufficient capital to merit superficial coverage, but less established Parties such as the Justice Party, the Reform Party and the Modern Whig Party are never “invited to the dance,” and a true independent is almost uniformly dismissed.

The losers in this “game” are the People. They are denied exposure to legitimate alternative candidates who may better serve our Nation’s interests.

Imagine a President who wasn’t beholden to a particular Party; a President who could consider every alternative rather than just those that fit a particular Party platform; a President who would work for four years without the interruptions caused by having to attend Party fundraisers, campaign on behalf of other Party candidates, or even campaign for re-election; a President who truly reported to the People rather than a Party. Now, compare that to our current political model. Which do you prefer? More importantly, why is it likely that you aren’t even aware you had that exact choice this time?

The question you should ask is: “Is there any hope?” The answer is: “Absolutely!”

Hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions of people will have the courage to cast a vote for the actual candidate of their choice rather than for one whom they’ve been driven by fear to support. The experience will be cathartic.

They will feel exuberant because they will have voted with personal integrity. They will also gain a sense of power from knowing that they still have the Liberty to vote their conscience.

In the past, this experience and knowledge would be localized and shared by such voters only with their close family, friends, and associates. Today, it will be shared with the world.

Social media has the capacity to reduce the stranglehold of the major Parties and of their co-conspirator, the traditional media.  Witness the viral growth of the TEA Party, the Arab Spring, and Occupy Wall Street just to name a few.

Web-based shows like Mark Jerrel’s Hipolitix and L. Dean Latham’s The Balanced Approach have broken the mold.  They offer interesting, thoughtful discussions of contemporary political issues and are open to everyone regardless of Party affiliation.

Mark Jerrel’s program provides a forum for the hip-hop generation. Mr. Jerrel is a political science graduate and offers one of the most compelling Q&A sessions anywhere.

Mr. Latham has taken Presidential programming a step further by offering the first web-based debate among Presidential candidates. The Town Hall-style format is open to every Presidential candidate. As a participant in his first Presidential Town Hall Debate, I can point to three contrasts with what we have been conditioned to accept by the Committee on Presidential Debates: (1) the discussions were civil, (2) no one interrupted, and (3) everyone actually answered the questions that were asked. His next Presidential Town Hall Debate is scheduled for November 2nd (9:00 PM EDT / 6:00 PM PDT).

Programs like these, web-based media, and individual blogs are why there is hope.

Additionally, during my campaign trips, I have predominantly spoken at universities and high schools. Those audiences represented a generation that will have to pay for our mistakes. They recognize the problem and are looking for solutions. The vast majority of them also demonstrated a proclivity for separating reality from rhetoric.

Did I mention that they are extremely knowledgeable in the area of social networking? This is a warning to the traditional media paradigm and to the Parties. Your “fifteen minutes of fame” may be about to end. The next generation doesn’t like what it sees, and it knows how to share that message.  You may be forced to contend with a new kind of leader as a result: one who is focused on fixing our problems rather than fixing the blame.


T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.

This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, A President for the People, in the Communities section of The Washington Times.