Dependable Erection

Thursday, February 09, 2006

What a free press means to me

I've been depressed by the conversation on certain blogs and message boards about the Mohammed cartoons. The basic misunderstanding of the concept of a free press by a significant number of people, some of whom i respect greatly, really caught me off guard. I want to lay out what i see as the meaning of a free press, and maybe we can start to figure out why we see things so differently.

Some background. I took my first job in printing in 1981. It was at the accurately if unimaginatively named "The Print Shop" on Terry Rd., in Smithtown, NY. We printed books of poetry, flyers and posters for anti-war and anti-nuke groups, newsletters for women's groups and the War Resisters League. It was a dream job for a 25 year old radical leftist. It was an IWW shop, so there were no employees. If you weren't a working partner, you were an independent contractor, an arrangement which might have attracted the attention of the IRS had the shop actually generated enough revenue to pay the bills. I learned to shoot negatives and halftones, to impose signatures, burn plates, run a small press, fold, stitch and trim booklets. I earned four dollars an hour. I worked there for almost 3 years.

Armed with a journeyman's skills, and newly married, i set off to make my way in the printing trades. I spent time in the dark rooms and platemaking rooms of several weekly newspapers, commercial printers, and for a time, the in-house plant of a major Wall St. brokerage firm. I was working at a color separation trade shop in the late 80s when the Macintosh/PageMaker/PostScript revolution changed the entire nature of the printing and publishing business. But i love what i do, and i love being a part of a tradition that includes both Ben Franklin and Al Goldstein, so i acquired an entirely new skillset, kept myself employable, and for the past 15 years or so have been involved in managing the digital prepress workflow. The last decade i've been doing this for the catalog publishing arm of one of the US's largest retailers of adult material.

Would it surprise you to learn that there are any number of countries where i could be jailed, or worse, for doing what i do to earn my living, or for what i've helped to print in the past?

So all of this is my way of saying that i find the principle of freedom of the press to be worth understanding, and worth fighting for.

Now, i want to talk about the various players in the publishing work chain, and what freedom of the press means to them.

We start with publishers themselves, the people who pay for the creation of the books, newspapers, magazines, websites, etc. that we read. Publishers decide what the content of their publications should be. Anyone who has a blog is a publisher. When publishers get big enough, they hire editors to be their proxies, to make decisions about the content of a publication in their absence.

Editors and publishers need writers, illustrators, photographers, and designers to help put their publications together. These can be staffers, or contract employees (freelancers). These people give life to the ideas that the publisher wants to put out into the world.

Once a publication is designed, it needs to be distributed. The publisher turns to the print industry for ink on paper, or a webhost or DVD manufacturer for digital distribution. Publishers who are large enough may own their own print shops, as most newspapers do, host their own webpages, or burn their own DVDs, but generally they are dealing with independent businesses who provide these services. Print shops have platemakers, press operators, and finishers; web hosts have IT departments to make sure pages keep getting served.

Publications, of course, need readers. While some of us are content to publish our little blogs or fanzines not knowing if anybody is ever checking them out, the web page and the printed page both are part of the community. We read them to know what's going on in places where we can't be, to know what our neighbors are thinking. We converse with the rest of the world through these pages.

Finally, since printers, writers, web designers, et al, want to be paid for their work, we need advertisers. There are very few publications, mainly best-selling books, that can generate enough revenue on their own to do without advertisers who are willing to pay to have their message reach readers. Your daily newspaper costs a lot more than fifty cents per copy to produce. Everyone's salary involved in creating a publication, as well as the publisher's profits, are dependent upon advertising.

So, in broad strokes, that's the publishing industry. Now, how does freedom of the press serve the needs of each of those folks in a perfect world?

For the publisher, it means that she gets to decide what goes into her publication. Nobody from the government, the Church, the Mummers, the Chamber of Commerce, can say you must print this or you can't print that. For publishers and editors it means that you can say something negative about a public figure, as long as you can show it's true. If the police chief is taking bribes, and you've got the goods, you can publish. Pedophile priest in your community? Let the world know with no fear of prosecution.

For writers, artists, and other, to use a banal 21st century term, content providers, it means you are free to create your material and seek a publisher for it, or become your own publisher. It does not mean that any publisher is obligated to make your material available to the public. Don't forget, the publisher has the final decision as to what goes into his publication.

If you're the printer, you have the right to refuse to put ink on paper for a publication, or to host a website, if it violates your principles. In practice, the main principle for most printers is to make money, but i can attest from personal experience, there are plenty of printers who will turn down good money to print an adult products catalog. That is their right. Conversely, printers can donate or discount their services for causes they support, subject to certain regulations pertaining to electoral campaigns.

What if you're the press operator, or other print shop or web host employee? You have the right not to work on material you find personally offensive, and every printer i know will make arrangements to have the work done on another shift or press, by a different employee. You're also free to seek employment at a shop that doesn't print materials you find offensive. If you're fortunate enough to live in country where the press room is organized, you also have the backing of your union in negotiating contracts with the printer spelling out your rights.

Readers benefit from a free press by having access to the full spectrum of news, opinion, information and entertainment. The notion that one group of people should have the power to determine what gets published and what is suitable for reading and viewing by the citizenship is simply incompatible with a free society. Readers who are troubled or offended by certain publications have, in addition to simply avoiding it, several other options to making their views known. They can become publishers in their own right and present countering views. They can write to the publisher requesting a retraction, or the publication of alternative information. The publisher remains free to reject these requests. But perhaps the most effective tool, which many groups in the US have learned how to use, is to communicate directly with the advertisers.

Advertisers benefit from a free press by having multiple, nearly infinite, outlets through which to sell their products and services. The good will generated by a publication that effectively serves the needs of its readers is transferred to those who choose to advertise in the publication. Break that good will, and the relationship between the publisher and the advertiser, who makes it possible for the publisher to turn a profit, is threatened. In a democratic society, it's difficult to alienate so much of the population that an advertiser might feel threatened, but it does happen. Just ask Ford Motor Co.

Of course, this describes how a free press works in a perfect world, and the one we live in, no matter how much we try, ain't perfect. Newspapers and television stations are increasingly owned by larger corporate media networks, whose decisions are driven by bottom line policies. Book publishers as well are part of entertainment empires, and more resources are devoted to publishing and marketing fewer titles by fewer authors, looking for the monster bestseller. Countering that trend is the ever decreasing cost of publishing for individuals. Recent estimates indicate there are over 100 million blogs, with well over half of them being active. There is so much excellent work being done by bloggers on the left that it's almost embarrassing to try and name them all, knowing how many would be left out. Markos is practically creating an empire out of nothing but pixels and will power, and digby, Atrios, the Rude Pundit, jane and ReddHedd, not to mention the Chimp and many others, are doing such good work that we all have useful information at our fingertips 24/7, to help counter the corporate media spin.

We haven't achieved equity yet, and the freedom to publish without constraint means of course, that there are plenty of people publishing pro-Bush administration bullshit, Nazi propaganda, and assorted hate-fests. That's going to come with the territory. Any laws or regulations we might want to push to see enacted to prevent that kind of material are going to be turned around and used against us, to stop us from publishing and reading the material we need to help bring this country back to sanity.

MLG at TAPPED has an interesting viewpoint in a post this morning:

In recent years, Denmark has not offered the same courtesy extended to Jews during WWII to their darker-than-blond minority populations; the children of immigrants to Denmark are not considered Danes. Kids whose parents were asylum seekers or economic migrants in the 1960s but who may have never been outside Denmark are still considered second-generation immigrants rather than full blooded Danes. And Denmark, a seemingly liberal and tolerant country, has adopted a reactionary politics as a response to the growing number of Muslims in their midst. This cartoon was a combative offshoot of that kind of politics that was directed at Muslims in Copenhagen -- not Beirut.

European conservatives -- and Andrew Sullivan -- have tended to ignore this half of the story, and see the conflagration over the cartoons exclusively about the Muslim world’s backwardness and their lack of tolerance for the freedom of expression. To be sure, every liberal should agree that a newspaper ought to be able to print any political satire it wants. But condemnation of the riots must be accompanied with a challenge to Europe to expand its definition of citizenship. And where that definition already includes immigrant populations, say France, public policy ought to be used to address the lack of social mobility that plagues the minority population of Western Europe.

If the two do not go hand in hand, nothing positive can come out of the current crisis.

Certainly interesting points to ponder. I don't know the state of the press in Denmark to know, for example, whether there are publications by and for the "second-generation immigrant" community that Mark describes. I assume there are, based on my experience living in a certain part of New York City in the early 1980s that was a first generation immigrant community, and which had several Polish language dailies, a weekly and a monthly all available at newsstands, cafes, and bars in the neighborhood. Regulation of the mainstream press will inevitably impact these types of publications, probably more heavily and more quickly as well. And not everyone sees "the conflagration over the cartoons exclusively about the Muslim world’s backwardness and their lack of tolerance for the freedom of expression," although, for me, the freedom of the press is the baseline issue. If Mark expects that public policy will, at some point in time, "be used to address the lack of social mobility that plagues the minority population of Western Europe," he should be aware that the means of achieving that admirable goal will surely include a free press that is willing and able to hold the powers that be accountable and to call out corruption and cronyism in high places where necessary.

My take on the demonstrations, as i've noted before, is that they would be better served by being directed at the Egyptian government, whose predictable failures resulted in the loss of 1000 lives in a competely avoidable ferry accident two weekends ago. A free press would surely help channel the outrage and help to save lives in the future.

Mark should certainly be concerned by the remarks of Mohamed Ahmed Sherif, as reported today by the Associated Press:

In Brussels, Belgium, Mohamed Ahmed Sherif, chairman of the Libyan-based World Islamic Call Society, said Muslims see the drawings as a direct attack on their values and called the decision to print them in European newspapers a "hate program."

. . .

"There can be no settlement before an apology and there can be no settlement before laws are legislated by the European Parliament and the parliaments of European countries," he said.

Islamic nations should demand "a law committing the press and the media in the West that proscribes insulting our prophet. If this matter cannot be achieved that means they (West) insist on continuing this," he added.

This kind of proposed legislation ought to be anathema to a journalist like Mark. And if the call is out for Westerners to understand the forces that motivate followers of the Prophet, it ought to equally be made of Islamic leaders to understand that a free press is as much of a bedrock of Western culture as daily prayers are of Islamic culture.

Personally, i'm kind of a militant atheist. I could have easily been the father in Sacramento filing suit against the Pledge of Allegiance, had my child chosen to make an issue of it in school. I think the development of monotheism set back human civilization for thousand of years, perhaps irrevocably. But, because the same First Amendment that guarantees freedom of the press also guarantees the free exercise of religion, i'm comfortable with other people's practice and worship. Not because it's divinely inspired, but because it was hard fought for, and won at the price of human blood and pain. And that is a respect that must be mutual.


  • Hello- I'm cataloging movement posters from the 1970s, and found your sweet story about The Print Shop. I too worked at a collective print shop, out here in Berkeley, and loved it. I'd like to ask some more questions about TPS if you want to. I probably can't leave an address here, but I'm easy to find if searching for Docs Populi.

    By Blogger posterboy, at 4:36 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home