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CURL: Freedom of the press almost impossible to define
America’s birthday. Today. 235 years old. This is a day when all Americans should …
Oh please, like anyone’s reading this. You’re at the pool, the beach, grilling hot dogs, or just sleeping in. As you should be. This is #@$*%& America. We do what we want, when we want — and if you don’t like it, Venezuela — well, too bad. We’d come down there and teach you a lesson, but really, we’re going to opt for the nap. You guys figure it out.
And for all those countries “figuring it out,” seriously, just take a look at the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. It’s all in there:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Yeah, OK, we didn’t include blacks in there, and we were busy slaughtering the Indians when the Founding Fathers wrote that, but still, the gist was pretty much spot on — we all get to do our own thing.
And how American is this email? “Celebrate Independence Day with All-American NOOK Books!” Inside, there are low, low prices on a slew of great books — including Alexander Hamilton’s “The Federalist” (just $3.99!).
But wait. This column is supposed to be about politics, political theater. So let’s jump to the Constitution and circle back to President Obama. The First Amendment says in its decidedly understated tone: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
Yet that simple declaration was hotly debated before the document’s drafting.
In Federalist 84, Hamilton mused at length about the notion that a piece of paper could establish press freedom, much less correct abridgments thereof:
“On the subject of the liberty of the press, as much has been said, I cannot forbear adding a remark or two: In the first place, I observe that there is not a syllable concerning it in the Constitution of this state, and in the next, I contend that whatever has been said about it in that of any other state, amounts to nothing. What signifies a declaration that ‘the liberty of the press shall be inviolably preserved?’ What is the liberty of the press? Who can give it any definition which would not leave the utmost latitude for evasion? I hold it to be impracticable; and from this, I infer, that its security, whatever fine declarations may be inserted in any constitution respecting it, must altogether depend on public opinion, and on the general spirit of the people and of the government. And here, after all, as intimated upon another occasion, must we seek for the only solid basis of all our rights.”
Bingo. Freedom of the press is almost impossible to define, and even harder to enforce. But it is the public’s perception that the press is free that guarantees it. Should Americans decide that they are not being told the full truth, the whole story, then they — and they alone — can rise up to object. Hamilton was counting on it.
And on this note, there is much to object to in regard to Mr. Obama, who flouts the press corps often. Take his last news conference. Forget the fact that he called only on friendly reporters and news agencies, who regularly ask weak and easily dodged questions. What was most interesting last week was how the president emphatically refused to answer one particular question — and the media simply took “no” for an answer.
Asked his own views on same-sex marriage, Mr. Obama said: “I think this has been asked and answered.” Of course it hadn’t been — the president had dodged, obfuscated in his previous answers. “I’ll keep on giving you the same answer until I give you a different one, all right? And that won’t be today.”
Pity that the next reporter to ask a question didn’t simply say, “Can you answer the last question?” And the next reporter — and the next and next and next. And more, it’s too bad that Americans weren’t a bit more perturbed about Mr. Obama’s clear disdain for the press — “I’ll keep on giving you the same answer until I give you a different one, all right?”
What would Hamilton say? Probably just that when Americans tire of questions dodged, they’ll demand answers. And maybe that time will come in the 2012 presidential campaign.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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