A Free Press Keeps Us Free
by Ted Miller
(Originally published in Tumbleweird September 2018)
Our government has always had an antagonistic relationship with the press.
Breaking from a tyrannical monarchy, our founders didn’t trust a government without checks and balances. The Constitution divides power between three branches of government, each with the responsibility and authority to hold the others accountable. But still, some were afraid those checks and balances weren’t enough. They knew that a well-informed citizenry was essential to a government accountable to the people.
There is a reason the press is specifically protected by the first amendment. It is the press that tells us what our government is doing and shines a light on darkness, corruption, and abuse of power.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” And Ronald Reagan said, “Our tradition of a free press as a vital part of our democracy is as important as ever.” I would say that is even more true today.
Not since the founding of this nation has any president so virulently and consistently attacked the press as Donald J. Trump has. “Fake News,” he shouts whenever something unfavorable is reported about him. He repeatedly labels the media the “enemy of the people.” He incites his audiences against reporters at his rallies. In Trump’s divisive world of friends and enemies, anyone critical of him is the enemy. And enemies of Donald Trump are, in his mind, enemies of the country.
But the press is not the enemy of the people. To the contrary, the press is the protector of the people. Journalists are members of our communities. They have friends and families, pay taxes, and live and work among the rest of us. They are our eyes and ears. And when they find something that isn’t right, they report it.
Watergate was exposed through investigative journalism, in spite of Nixon’s efforts to control the media, leading to a criminal investigation and ultimately to Nixon’s resignation. Publication of the Pentagon Papers told the public how they and Congress had been lied to about the Vietnam War. Reporting of sexual abuse and coverup continues to drive reform in the Catholic Church. Every day, local and national news organizations dig in to the stories and issues of the day to report it to the people. Local governments are held accountable through local media.
But the continued demonization of the media by those who try to control the narrative has undermined the trust of the people. It is unfortunate that so many in our country are no longer willing or able to trust any media source other than the ones that align with their beliefs. To some, it doesn’t matter whether the “news” they are consuming is rooted in fact or is made up fiction to rile the masses and appeal to their base. The result is deepening division and an inability to find objective truth.
The truth is under attack. Statements like “alternate facts,” “truth isn’t truth,” and “your truth is different than my truth” question the very existence of objective truth.
It is not a stretch to say we live in Orwellian times. In a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on July 24thof this year, Donald Trump said, “"Stick with us. Don't believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. ... What you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening."
That sounds eerily like George Orwell’s 1984 where he wrote, “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” We are in peril if the only source of “news” people believe becomes that promoted by the occupant in the White House.
There are such things as facts and objective truth. We as citizens must sort through the noise to find it. And the free press is our constitutionally protected source of that truth.
Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Freedom of the press is essential to the preservation of a democracy; but there is a difference between freedom and license. Editorialists who tell downright lies in order to advance their own agendas do more to discredit the press than all the censors in the world.”
Yes, there is such a thing as “fake news.” Editorial spin and propaganda have grown rampant with the information explosion enabled by the internet. Social media is a terrible source of news, yet unverified memes and fabricated conspiracy stories spread like wildfire when they align with what we already believe to be true. It is much too easy to hit “share” without fact-checking, and the truth suffers.
Discerning the truth is hard work and we have to protect ourselves from becoming isolated in our own echo chambers.Opinion, gossip, entertainment, and tabloid are not the same as reporting and investigative journalism. Those who fail to understand the difference and cry “fake news” at anything they disagree with are part of the problem.To lump all media into the “fake news” category undermines efforts by the press to hold to journalistic standards and ethics.
As a nation, we must protect the freedom of the press. We need to support responsible journalism so the press can continue to do the job the founders envisioned. Recognize the difference between opinion and objective reporting. Cut through the spin and biases of multiple news sources to find the truth. Don’t spread the stories you see on Facebook and twitter without fact checking. Be skeptical but open minded. And avoid the cynicism that leads to hopelessness and inaction.
Cherish the right to a free press. It helps to keep us free.