A Test of a Free Society

WWTJD_1297 A Test of a Free Society.jpg
I would never call the press the enemy to the people of the United States.
— Clay S. Jenkinson portraying Thomas Jefferson

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The following is a rush transcript.

DS: 00:01 Good day citizens and welcome to What Would Jefferson Do?, our weekly opportunity to discuss current American events with President Thomas Jefferson, who is seated across from me now. Good Day to you, Mr Jefferson. 

CSJ as TJ: 00:01 Good day to you, citizen. 

DS: 00:17 Mr Jefferson, I don't think I've discussed this with you before, but I have a bit of a background in journalism and I'm quite upset at this current attitude of Americans, both in government and out, to call the press an enemy of America. 

CSJ as TJ: 00:33 My goodness. I remind you that in 1787, I wrote a letter in which I said, given the choice between government without newspapers and newspapers without government, I would not hesitate to prefer newspapers. If the people are well informed, if they know the facts, if they are abreast of developments in their society, they will govern themselves, but if the people don't have access to information, they can't possibly make responsible choices. And so if we had to choose between information as the basis of a thriving society or a government that shut down all the presses and said, trust us, we know what we're doing. I would not hesitate to prefer newspapers. 

DS: 01:23 Well, there are those who would disagree with you and say that, 'no, they're printing news that's inaccurate. They are trying to sway public opinion in an unfair way and taking advantage of many things in order just to sell newspapers.' You sir, you suffered from some bad press and some inaccurate reporting. You must have had a time when you thought, 'oh, those rascals. We should root them out.' 

CSJ as TJ: 01:52 Of course, I was vilified by an irresponsible federalist press. I was accused of things that made me blush. Fortunately, I didn't do them. I was called names that I was shocked to see in print. My every action was misconstrued and deliberately distorted. Every pronouncement I made was parsed for advantage by my enemies. Whole swathes of information were made up about me and I didn't have the capacity to respond. I didn't want to anyway. I said, it's like Hercules fighting Hydra — as he cut off one head, two more sprang up. So if you answer irresponsible press, that's all you will ever do in elected office. So I understand the frustration, I was deeply frustrated by the press and in my second inaugural address I said, this is kind of a test of a free society. We're passing that test, but it's not fun. It's annoying, it's hurtful, it's frustrating, but we have to pass that test — maybe at the state level, a few wholesome prosecutions for deliberate, ugly lies, but not at the national level. The test of our constitution and the bill of rights is that we will endure irresponsible press because the only thing worse than irresponsible press is no press. And let me say, both sides make this argument. Hamilton, where he here would say that he was vilified and mistreated and his every statement distorted — it seems to me that almost anyone in a position of power is going to find this. The federalists gave as good as they got. The Republicans gave as good as they got. There will always be partisans. Almost no press is absolutely objective. People have politics. People have points of view. They infiltrate what we write. Even when we're trying to be disciplined. I do trust the people, I trust the people because they have massive good sense and powers of discrimination to be able to decide what's true and what's not true, what's science and what's superstition, what's reason, and what's fantasy. I trust in the long run that the majority of the people will get it right and I don't think that any censor of any sort could ever be permitted to make decisions of that importance because how do we guard against a censor who is prejudiced? 

DS: 04:24 Is it, in your mind, alright for government officials to criticize the press? Call them names, etc? 

CSJ as TJ: 04:27 I think you can grumble, but you shouldn't denounce because that will maybe undermine the people's sense that the press has something to offer them. You can damage the capacity of people to govern themselves if you, if you demonize and vilify everything that you don't agree with, I think it's better to grumble a little and say that wasn't strictly speaking true. I think that that's irresponsible press, but I would never call the press the enemy to the people of the United States. 

DS: 04:54 Thank you very much, Mr. Jefferson. 

CSJ as TJ: 04:56 You are most welcome, sir. 

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