In his first book, Free Speech and Unfree News: The Paradox of Press Freedom in America (Harvard University Press, 2016), Mason historian Sam Lebovic takes a historical look at freedom of the press and asks new questions about the role of the press in American democracy.
What made you want to write this book?
I wanted to write this book for two reasons. First, I was struck by what seemed to me to be a paradox in American press freedom today. First Amendment rights to press freedom have never been more highly protected or respected. Yet the actual freedom of the press seems beset by unexpected crises, such as the problems of accessing state secrets, or the “war on whistleblowers,” or the economic crises of the newspaper industry in the wake of the internet, and the shuttering of newsrooms and the laying off of reporters. So I wanted to write a history that would help explain how this paradox developed. And as I began exploring the history of press freedom, I realized that it was a wonderful lens into the development of American political culture, the news media, and the government, more broadly. So I was also excited to develop a new account of the role of the press in the history of American democracy.
George Mason famously included a declaration of press freedom in his Virginia Declaration of Rights. What would he make of freedom of the press today?
I think Mason would be struck by how little the idea of press freedom changed in the last 200+ years, despite radical changes in the press and the government. In practice, of course, the right to publish without government interference is much more highly protected today than it was in the early years of the republic. For instance, most of the founding generation thought that there were clear limits to the types of speech and publication that were protected by law, and that state governments had a right to censor a great deal of publication (until the 1920s, the First Amendment restricted Congress, not the states, from abridging freedom of the press).
Over the 20th century, the right to press freedom has expanded to protect much more speech, and to protect the press from censorship from state governments. But the idea behind the right remains largely unchanged—in the 1970s, the First Amendment theorist Thomas Emerson observed that the “basic theory” of press freedom hadn’t changed in two centuries. So Mason would, I imagine, recognize the law and idea of press freedom as basically familiar, but he would be completely disoriented by the changes in the practice of press freedom. The size of American newspapers, their mass readership, and the expense of starting a paper make today’s papers very different from the four-page newspapers of his day. The blogosphere would be more familiar; in this sense, the early 21st-century media landscape is closer to the 18th century than the mid-20th-century media market.
And he would be struck by the ballooning of the central government and the fact that the national security bureaucracy classifies so much information. Perhaps he would find it interesting that our ideas about press freedom haven’t changed despite the changes in the actual press?
You also write about the Beatles? Can you tell me how that ties into your research?
My work on the Beatles is part of a new research project on the history of media globalization in the middle decades of the 20th century. My work on press freedom was one effort to explore how ideas and information circulate in modern America; this new project seeks to understand how information and culture circulate internationally. The arrival of the Beatles in America struck me as an interesting moment in this story. Americans had to confront the possibility of importing popular culture after decades in which they had been accustomed to exporting it. More broadly, I’m interested in understanding how the international flow of culture actually worked in the middle decades of the 20th century, and how this influenced America’s experience of cultural globalization, and its attitudes to the world.