10 July 2019 – ‘Way back in the late 1960s I spent an entire day as a news hawker. That is, I stood on street corners shouting things at passersby intended to induce them to by copies of a newspaper I was selling. The newspaper was something called The L.A. Free Press. It was produced and sold in Los Angeles, and the street corners I stood on had names like “West Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset.”
I’d recently transplanted from Boston, Massachusetts to the Los Angeles, California area and had never heard of The L.A. Free Press before. A small gang I’d been hanging out with that morning heard that I had a driver’s license on me, and knew that we could use it as collateral to get a great whacking stack of those newspapers to sell at a profit.
Seemed like a good idea at the time.
I initially thought the newspaper copies were somehow free for the taking (as so many local papers are today). I was quickly disabused of that idea because I got pretty decent money for buying copies of it at a low price, then selling them on street corners for a higher price. It clearly wasn’t that kind of free!
Then, I imagined that was (like so many thin publications of the time) some hippy-dippy propaganda rag full of free-love manifestos and ads for beatnik-poetry venues. Being a veteran hippy-beatnik-biker, that was okay with me. I didn’t care as long as there was coin to be had. I wasn’t one of Donovan Leitch’s “beatniks out to make it rich,” but I was interested in coming up with lunch money!
The main headline on the first page of the copies we got in exchange for a mortgage on my driver’s license sounded like a local-interest story that I was not embarrased to wave at potential newsprint buyers, so it didn’t seem to be some hippy-dippy propaganda rag, either. The papers actually sold pretty well!
I needed the money (being dead broke at the time), so I swallowed my pride and did the job. I kept the last copy from my stack, however, to read when I got back to wherever I was sleeping that night.
By the time I’d finished reading the thing I’d realized why the publication was called The L.A. Free Press. It was an independent newspaper founded by a small group dedicated to investigative journalism with nobody to answer to but their readers. I became proud to be working with them.
If I’d been smart and ambitious I would have tried to get a job with them writing copy. After all, part of my reason for relocating was to find some kind of writing gig. But, as is typical with homeless eighteen-year-olds living on the streets, I was more frightened and depressed than smart and ambitious. The next day I moved on to doing something that turned out to be another stupid career move.
Sometimes depression is not a sign of mental illness, but a rational response to the way your life is going.
What I learned from that episode of my misspent youth (What’s the point of misspending your youth if you’re not going to learn something from it?) was what intellectuals mean when they talk about “the Free Press.” It’s not just some empty slogan you hear once in a while on CNN. It’s how we, as citizens of a free country, keep track of what’s going on outside of our individual hovels.
The difference between we citizens of a free country and downtrodden medieval serfs slaving to feed their “betters,” is that we have some say in what goes on outside our hovels. We can’t affect things in a way that’s good for us and the people we care about unless we find out what’s actually going on out there. For that we hire independent journalists who have at least half a brain and make it their business to find out for us.
We pay them a living wage and (if we’ve got at least half a brain ourselves) listen to what they tell us is happening. The Free Press is not, as some dishonest demagogues try to tell us, “the enemy of the people,” but a necessary part of a free democratic society.
For this reason, the journalistic profession has been called “The Fourth Estate” since the Enlightenment. Originally, the term was meant to indicate that a Free Press was available – in addition to the three original estates of clergy, aristocracy and commoners – whose writ was to frame the debate upon which society made common decisions. Later political systems still had (usually) three competing authorities explicitly charged with governing, along with a Free Press implicitly charged with framing the debate about what to do next.
In the United States, our Constitution explicitly delineates a government made up of three co-equal branches: Legislature, Court System, and Executive. The Founding Fathers (If that’s not a sexist term, I don’t know what is!) realized they’d forgotten the Free Press in the original document when they couldn’t get anybody to ratify (agree to) the thing without immediately amending it to include a Free Press (as well as the rest of the Bill of Rights).
The Free Press was considered so important that it was included in the first amendment.
Before anybody gets the idea that I’m criticizing the Founding Fathers as incompetent, I want to point out that this error just goes to prove that those guys were human, and humans make mistakes. Specifically, they were exceedingly bright guys to whom the need for a vibrant Free Press was so obvious that they forgot to mention it. The first ten Amendments – the Bill of Rights – should be seen as an “Oh, Shit!” moment.
“How could we have left that out?”
Having a Free Press, and making good use of it, is the first thing you have to have to set up a democracy. In a sense, it’s not the “fourth” estate, but the first. All the rest is afterthought. It’s bells and whistles designed to be the mechanical parts of a democracy. They’re of no value whatsoever without a Free Press.
On the other hand, once you have a functioning Free Press and a society that makes good use of it, the rest of the bells and whistles will inevitably follow. In that sense, the Free Press is not an afterthought or a result of democracy. Instead, it’s the essence of democracy. That’s why the first thing would-be authoritarians seek to eliminate is the Free Press.