The First Amendment, a Free Press and Journalism; A Recession?*

The First Amendment, a Free Press and Journalism

What is the obverse of a “free press”? We’ve once again reached a point in history where that question has become topical because America’s media has taken steps on-the-way to becoming an “unfree press.” Why is this true? Because a free press provides “information,” careful research and a healthy dose of reality, what in prior decades a newspaper delivered. The media’s role is to spread news, not propaganda. It’s role should be to provide objectivity, not one-sided reporting. When a newspaper called itself The Daily News, it meant it. Journalism – the research and collection of news for presentation – was an honored profession. Reporters like Edward R. Morrow, Walter Cronkite and Woodward and Bernstein were role models … in large part because the public could trust them. The public recognized that they were telling the truth. Our media was not in the pocket of the government or politicians or -isms. The only agenda of news organizations was journalism. Our press apparently no longer is in that business.

“News” is defined as “newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent or important events.” News tells us what’s really happening. It enables citizens in a democracy to make informed decisions.

It shouldn’t be challenging to determine what’s “real” and what’s “fake.” Unfortunately, Americans today have to do exactly that. They have to determine what is reality, what is truth, and what is a lie. People in Russia and Cuba have had to do this for decades, and truth has lost that battle. Russians and Cubans have largely given up and the substantial majority have accepted what they’re told. More recently, the public in Venezuela, Turkey and the Philippines (among others) has had to make the same determinations. Having to do so has undermined their democratic institutions. That’s precisely what has happened and is happening is each of those countries. Having to parse news for truth undermines institutions that provide stability and trust. It confuses and corrupts young people … and old people too. It creates a relativistic society in which people have to choose who and what to believe … and who and what to disbelieve. Whoever controls the levers of the media wins. Hitler understood this all too well. Putin is a master at doing so, as are any number of today’s actual and aspiring demagogues. One side will be right and the other wrong – and whoever is wrong will be a bad guy, reviled. Relative truth will become absolute truth … and social media will reaffirm that dichotomy.

Yet, there is such a thing as reality.

Truth has distinguished America – and American exceptionalism – from the communists and fascists and totalitarians all other countries in all current and prior eras. American leaders have told it like it is. When President Roosevelt said that the only thing to fear was fear itself, we believed him. When President Truman made the decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan, and subsequently decided not to use them against North Korea and Red China, the world bought into his explanation, the world believed that he had good reasons for doing so and that he was telling the truth. When President Kennedy said there were nuclear missiles in Cuba, he was believed. When President Reagan spoke …, well, you get the idea. When people behind the Iron Curtain heard Voice of America, they believed what was said because America spoke truth. America’s media received the same respect. It was believed because it was part of an exceptional system of truth-telling.

On the other hand, when Pravda spoke, the world understood that Pravda was state media. Pravda was the mouthpiece for the Russian government. It was captive to fake news. It wasn’t in the journalism business. Its information was not informative. It was propaganda.

Today in America, newspapers, magazines, and websites are downsizing their news organizations. They’ve been doing so for years and the trend has deepened. The media no longer is seeking information for the purpose of devining truth because information is difficult to acquire and costs money … and appears to be unnecessary to their audiences. It seeks ratings. Of course the media has always sought ratings, but it generally did so by offering its audience information – journalism. News today has become far more of an entertainment industry and what entertains people is either sensational (“Man bites dog”) or plays to the fears and prejudices of its audience. When it’s sensational – something that in a prior century was labeled “yellow journalism” – it excites and incites … but doesn’t inform. When it’s directed to a fearful or worshipful audience, it’s propaganda that divides … and also doesn’t inform. Far too many organs of the media play on fear, whether racial, ethnic, religious or political. Media today often preys to an “us versus them” audience.

The evolution of news from print to social media means that every person can find like-minded allies, others who share their views … and their prejudices. Everyone can pick and choose “facts” that they believe and “facts” they want to believe. The hollowing out of news organizations means that there are fewer reporters to parse truth, fewer to research and scrutinize the actions of elected and appointed officials, fewer journalists. The hollowing out of the media gives more power to the powerful, to government officials and appointees, to demagogues and those who would be demagogues. More power – more unchecked power – leads to more corruption. Without media oversight, democracy suffers.

There’s a crisis in journalism, a true First Amendment crisis. It’s here and now. It’s a crisis for democracy. There is such a thing as “reality.” There are individuals and institutions that pride themselves on truth. Will we find the courage to strengthen those individuals and institutions or will they wither?

A Recession?

Economic growth is slowing worldwide and some commentators are forecasting a recession this year, if not globally at least in the U.S. and China. Call it a 50-50 chance.

According to the OECD, the global economy is weakening because of tariffs, uncertainty over Brexit and political and economic turmoil in France, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan and elsewhere. The OECD’s report showed a declining trend in GDP growth: ~3.3{29ea29b64b10057f61377b2c087cd5b7537a0cd24da4295a308b0bf589469f35} in 2019, down from 3.5{29ea29b64b10057f61377b2c087cd5b7537a0cd24da4295a308b0bf589469f35} in November and 3.7{29ea29b64b10057f61377b2c087cd5b7537a0cd24da4295a308b0bf589469f35} previously. “A sharper slowdown in any of the major regions could derail activity worldwide, especially if it spills over to financial markets,” according to Laurence Boone, the OECD’s chief economist. The EU forecasts GDP growth of 1.3{29ea29b64b10057f61377b2c087cd5b7537a0cd24da4295a308b0bf589469f35} in 2019, down from its prior 1.9{29ea29b64b10057f61377b2c087cd5b7537a0cd24da4295a308b0bf589469f35}, and 1.6{29ea29b64b10057f61377b2c087cd5b7537a0cd24da4295a308b0bf589469f35} in 2020, down from 1.7{29ea29b64b10057f61377b2c087cd5b7537a0cd24da4295a308b0bf589469f35} previously. Many believe these to be optimistic estimates that continue a history of excessive Central Bank optimism. The European Central Bank reversed course earlier this month, reviving its crisis-era stimulus program after two years of a fruitless attempt to wean the EU off its easy money policies, a sign of rising concern over the region’s faltering economy. The decision to offer cheap loans to EU banks was coupled with a signal that interest rates would be kept at historic lows until next year. This puts the ECB in the same camp as the Fed and other central banks that have reversed course in recent weeks. In the U.S. economy, the sense is that something is not quite right, whether in retail with store closings, employment/unemployment, or business spending. It may be that coordinated global growth has turned into a coordinated global slowdown … and in 12 of 13 Fed credit-tightening campaigns since WWII that has proven true and a recession has followed.

With that said, there is no evidence of the usual recession-generators such as tight money or a financial crisis. There is no sense of an imminent Dotcom bust or a sub-prime mortgage crisis. Even so, a recession could be in the offing simply due to earlier Fed interest rate increases, running off of the Fed debt, stock market uncertainty, weak housing, receding corporate profits and consumer retrenchment as well as economic weakness in Europe, South America, and southern Asia, and tariff conflicts with China and Europe.

Nevertheless, recent steps taken by Central Bankers may turn out to be just what the doctor ordered. Their prescriptions for the global economy – as well as their local economies – after all have been quite successful over the past decade. The Central Bankers therefore may be effecting a soft landing, as the Fed did in the mid-1990s when it shifted from increasing to cutting interest rates without a related recession. It hasn’t been profitable over the past decade to bet against Central Bankers!

As for the markets, where do they go from here? Some believe that the markets have risen too much on unreasonable optimism and that valuations are once again too high, presaging a bear market ahead of a likely recession in 2020-21. Others remain bullish, noting that the S&P 500 index is only ~5{29ea29b64b10057f61377b2c087cd5b7537a0cd24da4295a308b0bf589469f35} higher than its 2017 year-end close. No one has a crystal ball. To borrow once again from Shakespeare in Love, “No one knows. It’s a mystery.”

Comment From a Reader

I agree wholeheartedly on your take about education in Our Greatest Resource – Our Children. It seems that whatever America invents or does well (education, TVs, technology, etc.) the rest of the world is in a much better position to not only copy what we have invented but improve on it and then sell it cheaper…a complicated problem.


Consistent with a focus on the inability of man to make accurate predictions:

“Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.” Dr. Dionysius Lardner, 1830.

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943.

*┬® Copyright 2019 by William Natbony. All rights reserved.

No Comments

Post A Comment