What scares or angers you more? A free press or unchecked government power?
Those are questions as old as humanity itself, at least as old as the God-given freedom of humans to organize and think for themselves, pitted against the desire of those who govern to control the governed. In the United States its a struggle founded in the first amendment to the Constitution (1789), that declares, in part: "Congress shall make no law....abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...." No laws, yet that has not stopped some in power in government from attacking, even seeking to undermine the freedom of journalists to write freely and therefore of readers to also think, and draw free conclusions, all without fear of retribution.
This civic tug of war is powerfully portrayed in Steven Spielberg's latest movie, the Academy award nominated The Post. In 1971, President Richard Nixon sought to stop the New York Times and other newspapers from publishing "The Pentagon Papers", a top secret government study about the conduct of the Vietnam War. The United States government claimed printing the contents and sharing it with the public was a threat to national security. Unspoken was also the truth that the document made the government look bad, and embarrassed it even.
Nixon lost in the Supreme Court, 6-3. In writing for the majority, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black Blackmun wrote, "...the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors."
To serve the governed, not the governors.
Which at least for me, puts our latest Commander in Chief's unalloyed disdain, contempt and even hatred for the press, in context. It has been a generation since an occupant of the White House has been so openly hostile to journalists and journalism. And now the public is also hopping on board this anger train as well. Line up! What better target is there for our disdain and disgust and cynicism, than the fourth estate? Those lousy liars!! Those fake news purveyors!!
I get some of our frustration. With more news and news outlets available to us than ever before in history, if we look long and hard enough, we will always find media to rile us up, and media to reflect just what we want to believe. It is harder than ever before to tease the truth out of so much false, slanted and questionable news. The days of a predictable, sane news cycle or a handful of networks and newspapers as "sites of record", are long gone, drowned in a sea of information.
But what is the alternative?
If there is no free press to keep the government in check, to call out leaders who lie or bend the truth, to confront elected politicians who use public office for personal gain, who will do this vital work of democracy? We can ask our friends in Turkey. Following an attempted military coup there in 2016, its President put 81 journalists in jail, for writing the news. How about China? Forty one reporters behind bars. Russia: when it is not meddling in U.S. elections, the Kremlin jails, even murders its journalists. From 1992 to 2018, 58 journalists in Russia lost their lives in seeking the truth, in seeking to be free and to be the press.
I'll take a free press over a thin skinned government and governing class any day. I'll take the messiness, even the ugliness of democracy, too. The free press it isn't always pretty, this crazy exchange of so many ideas and so much news. But our free and unfettered media, for all its faults, ensures that the people remain informed and free and that the government remains on notice.
A free press and freedom: we cannot have one without the other.