In Praise Of The Free Press

“ …the people back there, the extremely dishonest press…Very dishonest people…How about – I mean how dishonest.”

Those were the remarks of President-Elect Donald Trump at his first “Thank You Tour” rally held in Cincinnati, Ohio to celebrate his presidential election victory.

“Dishonest” may be a nice term compared to some of the other epithets that Trump used about the press during his campaigns to become the Republican nominee and the President of the United States. In that time period, Trump was in virtually continuous attack mode against the media, referring to them, among other things as “disgusting reporters” and “horrible people.”

Even though Trump has talked about the press a lot over the past eighteen months or so, he has provided them with limited access to him. He blocked certain media outlets from being at his primary events, did not permit them to travel on his campaign plane, and following his victory avoided press conferences.

Trump has had no press conference since July 27, 2016. He now has one scheduled for January 11.

Some might think this does not matter. But, it does. It matters a lot.

Our American democracy does not exist because of the media, but it could not exist without it. The media made a major contribution to the establishment of the United States of America.

In 1735, a printer named John Peter Zenger was taken to jail for libel for articles that he had published in the New York Weekly Journal that were critical of the British government. Zenger was tried and acquitted. The die was cast for the media’s role in helping to fan the flames of revolution.

Then, in the run up to the Revolutionary War in the 1760’s and 1770’s, patriots sponsored or subsidized, newspapers so that they could build popular support for separating from England. Paid circulation was low for these “four-pagers” but they were passed hand to hand and read aloud in town meetings.

It is estimated that Thomas Paine’s Common Sense reached more than 500,000 people when the total population of the United States was a mere 2,500,000. The flames for revolution and establishment of the American democracy grew higher and were definitely fueled by newsprint.

Given this pivotal role of the news, is it any wonder that the First Amendment to the Constitution states “Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech or of the press”? Or, that Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1787, “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should say I would not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

The free press has been a cornerstone of American Democracy from the outset. It remains a differentiator today.

In its 2014 free press rankings, Freedom House ranks the United States as 31 out of 199 countries. Michael Schudson, Columbia University Professor of Journalism, rates the U.S. much higher. In his 2008 book, Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press, he asserts, “The press is more free of government restriction in the United States than in any other nation on earth.”

For us, the exact rating or ranking does not matter. What matters is that the press continues to speak truth to power. That has been one of the roles of the free press in the U.S. from its establishment to today.

At the heart of that truth-telling is investigative reporting. As lay persons, most of us know this best through exposes such as the Pulitzer-Prize winning reporting on the Richard M. Nixon Watergate scandal by Carl Bernstein and Robert Woodard in the Washington Post in 1972 and the 2002 investigative team Pulitzer Prize winning reporting on the priest sexual abuse scandal.

Those Pulitzer Prize winners, made famous through feature films, represent just a small tip of the iceberg that the free press can bring to bear to puncture the image and/or grip of the powerful. As examples of what the free press can do and its impact, consider the winners in 2016 and 2015.

In 2016, Leonora LaPetra Anton and Anthony Cormier of the Tampa Bay Times and Michael Braga of the Sarasota Herald Tribune were awarded the prize for their reporting which “revealed escalating violence and neglect in Florida mental hospitals and laid the blame at the door of state officials.”

In 2015, Eric Lipton of the New York Times captured the prize “For reporting that showed how the influence of lobbyists can sway congressional leaders and attorneys general, slanting justice toward the wealthy and connected.” And, the staff of the Wall Street Journal took home the prize, “For ‘Medicare Unmasked’, a pioneering project that gave Americans unprecedented access to previously confidential data on the motivation and practices of their health care providers.”

Here we stand in early 2017. And, in spite of its substantial accomplishments and contributions to making this great democracy work not only for the privileged few and to ensuring those in positions of power are held accountable for their actions, the free press and journalists are being demeaned and in certain instances denied the right to practice their craft.

There is some question whether there will be regular White House press conferences or briefings under the Trump administration. Even if there are, Kellyanne Conway has declared that she will lead the building of a “…surround sound superstructure so that every time somebody tries to get in his way with legislation he wants to pass, I will be there to haunt them.”

The nature and dimensions of that “surround sound superstructure” have not been defined. But, we can state with some confidence, that while it will be “free speech” it will most certainly not meet any of the requirements for being part of a “free press.” To coin a phrase it will be “alt-media”.

In Washington, D.C. on Pennsylvania Avenue just up the street from the White House is a wonderful museum called the Newseum. The Newseum is dedicated to free expression and the five freedoms of the first Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.

In the Newseum is the following etched statement:

The Free Press is a cornerstone of Democracy. People have the need to know. Journalists have the right to tell. Finding the facts can be difficult. Reporting the story can be dangerous. Freedom includes the right to be outrageous. Responsibility includes the right to be fair. News is history in the making. Journalists provide the first draft of history. A Free Press, at its very best, reveals the Truth.

We have come to praise the free press, not to bury it. There are others who want to do the opposite.

Time will tell how this story will end. Our American democracy hinges in the balance.