The totalitarian myth of the free press

The myth of the free press is thus trivially true and seriously false. Our press enjoys unrestricted freedom of movement, but this is really only a superficial semblance of freedom. Journalism is essentially un-free because it is unintelligent, because it systematically precludes thought about the kind of truth which ultimately makes truly human freedom possible. The myth that a free press is the indispensable guardian of a free society is therefore equally false. It is false because a blind, or stupid, or uncomprehending press cannot finally be a free press. It is false because a press with the absolute, unaccountable power to mediate reality cannot but induce blindness and stupefaction and incomprehension in the rest of us. It is false because a society that is deprived of its ability to see and to think is also finally robbed of its ability to act with any consequence in the face of apparent fate. And it is false because a society that is unable to act upon what is true and good is no longer free and, conversely, because a society that is robbed of its sight and the freedom to think will eventually be unable to recognize what is true and good.

Whether there is anything to be done about this depends upon how far this process of stupefaction has already advanced in us, and of course the very suggestion of ‘doing something’ about the media provokes predictable outcries against ‘censorship.’ But the First Amendment is really beside the point here. The crisis of thoughtlessness runs much deeper than that, and restricting the ‘freedom of the press’—even if it were possible—is hardly more pertinent to it than restricting the freedom of the frog to leap where it will. Whether we can resist the creeping totalitarianism and withstand what Arendt calls ‘the banality of evil’ will turn instead on the much deeper and more difficult question of whether we can recover a form of thought capable of withstanding the banality of journalism.