Commentary

02.17.17

A Free Press: More Important Now Than Ever

By

Transgender rights protest

“But I want to just tell you, the false reporting by the media, by you people, the false, horrible, fake reporting makes it much harder…”

If President Trump feels hounded by the news media, imagine how they feel being threatened by the U.S. government. Being a reporter isn’t easy right now, but it is perhaps one of the most important jobs in America.

During a recent press conference, President Trump referred to “fake” news reporting fifteen times.  Combined with his repeated campaign promises to “open up those libel laws” and “have people sue you like you never got sued before,”  our independent news media is under a grave threat. The American people cannot let anyone, least of all the “leader of the free world,” erode the First Amendment. With its promise that the government “shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press… and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” it is our bastion against tyranny. Throughout history, leaders in turmoil have raged against those who report the news—not because it is false, but because it is true. Plutarch’s description of the Armenian King Tiranes II in Parallel Lives is eerie in its relevance.

“The first messenger that gave notice of Lucullus’ coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes that he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man dared to bring further information. Without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him.”

The Founders were eminently wise to enshrine a free press in the Constitution. For many, the 24 hour news cycle may be exhausting in its insatiability and in its love for scandal and in its relentless pursuit of ratings. At its core, however, the press performs an invaluable, irreplaceable public service. Thomas Jefferson spoke often about the importance of the press, but one  quote particularly resonates:

“The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”

The more information a government controls, the greater its capacity to mold public opinion against its own interests, and the greater its capacity to quell dissent. Reporters act as guardians of truth, rooting out corruption and incompetence. Regardless of the political leanings of individual journalists and news outlets, independent news media as a whole works without regard to partisan interests, and a robust press is the only source of unbiased information that can help ensure the public is informed about our government. If that government is permitted to operate in the shadows, then greed, nepotism, waste, cronyism, and oppression are inevitable.

While an independent news media is critical to American democracy, we must stay on our guard for hoaxes, lies, omissions, biases, and agendas. We the people must “watch the watchmen.”

With the president’s repeated attacks on the press for “dishonesty,” the American people should be on their guard for actions that would jeopardize press freedom. First, he could restrict their access to various aspects of the presidency that have traditionally been open. Even more worrisome, past administrations have used surveillance and records seizures to spy on reporters, and exert influence to silence those who are critical. Finally, President Trump has vowed to loosen libel laws that could allow the public officials to censor the media through the courts.

We cannot allow the government to bully the press into submission. With the breakneck pace of new executive orders, it is critical that independent reporters ask questions of those in power and ensure the public is informed. The power of the people is rooted in the press’ ability to investigate and report. Let us not allow our own power to be undermined.

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