I’ve noted previously that I spent much of the past summer with Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville wrote about so many facets of American politics and culture that hardly a week has gone by this autumn without something in the news bring one or more passages to mind.
This was the case last week when reports began to come in of an off-the-record summit meeting at Trump Tower in New York between the president-elect and a host of media executives and news anchors. Reports of the gathering diverge widely. Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway described the meeting as “very cordial, very productive, very congenial,” but an unnamed source likened it to a “firing squad” in which Mr. Trump attacked his guests mercilessly, and Breitbart News exulted “Trump Eats Press.”
However things went down, there is no doubt that Mr. Trump’s relationship with the press has been more openly hostile than for any major presidential candidate in U. S. history. He will assume the presidency having pledged to change federal libel laws (something he evidently believes the president can do unilaterally) so that when the “dishonest media” write “negative and horrible and false articles . . . we can sue them and win lots of money.”
All of which brought to mind Tocqueville’s reflections on the value of a free press in his classic Democracy in America. The Frenchman was no great fan of American journalists. “In America,” Tocqueville wrote in 1835,
The spirit of the journalist is to appeal crudely, directly, and artlessly to the passions of the people he is addressing, forsaking principles in order to portray individuals, pursue them into their private lives, and lay bare their weaknesses and vices. Such abuse of thought can only be deplored.
Sounds a lot like Breitbart News.
And yet, if Tocqueville could not bring himself to admire journalists, he valued journalism, believing that a free press was absolutely integral to the preservation of liberty. In vol I, part II, chapter III of Democracy in America, Tocqueville argued that it was impossible to curb the excesses of the media without creating a threat to freedom. “When it comes to the press,” he concluded, “there really is no middle ground between servitude [a press that is wholly subservient to the state] and license [a press that is wholly unrestricted]. In order to reap the priceless goods that derive from the freedom of the press,” he went on, “one must learn to accept the inevitable evils that it breeds.”
Acknowledging that the “destructive tastes” that journalists often indulged and promoted, Tocqueville’s final defense of a free press as unqualified:
The more I consider the chief effects of the independence of the press, the more convinced I am that, among the moderns, independence of the press is the most important, indeed the essential, ingredient of liberty. A people that wants to remain free therefore has the right to insist that the independence of the press is the most important, indeed the essential, ingredient of liberty.