Sam Lebovic, assistant professor of history at George Mason University, delivered a lecture on Oct. 16 discussing the ideas in his book Free Speech and Unfree News: The Paradox of Press Freedom in America. In a country where free speech is extremely protected it should follow that the press is extremely free. But, according to Lebovic, that is not the case. There are two key crises facing the free press today–corporate consolidation and the rise of state secrecy. Both are grounded in history, having originated in the 20th century as the country decided what exactly freedom of press meant.
Corporate consolidation has reduced the number of newspapers available to the public because of powerful monopolies. Between the end of the 19th century and the 1930s, the number of newspapers dropped from 2,100 to 1,800 because smaller papers could not compete against the monopoly.
And because there were fewer papers and more of them were controlled by the same people, diversity of opinion expressed in the papers suffered. There was a movement to break up these monopolies, but fears over economic regulations turning into free speech regulations led newspapers to be exempt from anti-trust legislation.
The rise of state secrecy during and following WWII has made it harder for the public to access information about the government, which is a vital aspect of any democracy. Lebovic acknowledged that the state should keep certain information classified. But he argued that agencies have gone to the extreme, with millions of papers being classified that do not need to be.
In Lebovic’s opinion, the crisis of the free press centers around the difference between positive rights versus negative rights. Positive rights are freedom to something. Negative rights are freedom from something. In the case of press, positive rights would be the freedom to access quality information and negative rights is the freedom from government interference.
Developments in the 20th century resulted in negative press rights being the center of focus to the detriment of positive press rights, because the focus was simply on preventing state interference in the press and not on ensuring access to quality information. Lebovic ended the lecture emphasizing the need to distinguish between expression and information. America should not have to sacrifice access to quality information for the sake of preventing government interference.