The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted.
Newspapers. The press. They’ve been a part of our nations history and growth for as long as America has been a country. There are and have been all kinds of newspapers through the years–the sensational papers like the National Enquirer, the dailies like The Nee York Times, The Washington Post, The LA Times, and all the local city newspapers around the country. While it may seem that news is controversial now, it always has been, and as Napoleon Bonaparte said quite truthfully,
Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.
My question is threefold: Why do we trust elected officials more than our own abilities and intelligence? Why do we believe politicians when they decry the press? Why do we trust that these elected officials no matter who they may be, have our best interests at heart?
We know politicians don’t care about us. Yet we believe every word they say. This isn’t healthy for democracy if we mindlessly drink up every word they think we want to hear and never question them. They distract us with petty squabbles that keep us too busy to pay attention to what they are doing. We swallow whatever our favorite politician has to say hook, line and sinker. We hate who they tell us to hate without questioning why. They are trying to get us to hate the press and not place trust in the press. Healthy skepticism isn’t a bad thing. Question everything. But to wholesale distrust the established press is bad for freedom. We need the press as a check on the powerful in Washington.
This controversy that the press brings is good for our national discourse and without it, without a First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech and the press, we would have no discourse, no controversy and no freedom at all. All voices would be silenced except for the ones deemed acceptable by whatever administration happens to be in office. Rights for all but a few would go out the window. Thus, it is my contention that the First Amendment is much more important in defense of this country and our values of freedom for all than the Second Amendment, which some use to replace the First Amendment. Guns do not secure freedom alone. It is no good to secure freedom at gunpoint only to restrict what can be said openly. They can defend freedom, to be sure. In the end, it is the fundamental right to speak out that is sacred, that truly protects democracy ,whether it be by peaceful protest or protecting the rights of the people by printing what political leaders are doing in secret that affect the people adversely. Examples come to mind.
- Edward R Murrow exposing Joseph McCarthy and his Communist witch hunt by reporting on it on television and allowing the American people to hear McCarthys own words to judge for themselves if he constituted a danger to freedom.
- The publishing of the Pentagon Papers by the Washington Post. The papers had been classified to keep secret from the American people the history of American involvement in Vietnam through the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations, as well as the serious misgivings those governments had had about achieving any military success if America became involved in a war in Vietnam. President Nixon tried to stop The New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers under the guise of national security by getting an injunction to stop them reporting further on the fact the government had lied to the American people for 30 years about the war. For a while that worked. Then someone leaked the Pentagon Papers to the Washington Post. The Nixon government took the Post to court and eventually, the Supreme Court sided with the Post and in newspapers who covered the story after the Post, upholding the First Amendment in freedom of the press to inform the American people.
There are many more examples. Because here’s the thing. The President of the United States, no matter who it is, no matter what party, is not an authoritarian figure with the right by rule of law to be the sole decision maker for the whole country. The Founding Fathers feared that kind of authority and so they put up a system of checks and balances to stop any one branch from taking control of the country. This is a big reason why our republic has been stable for so long. The Founding Fathers thought the First Amendment was so important, they listed freedom of speech and freedom of the press first. Above the right to bear arms. Above any other right.
Were it not for the First Amendment, the NRA would not be able to say the things they say nor would they have become the large lobby they are. Were it not for the First Amendment, the politicians who support the gun lobby would be allowed to run amok with zero accountability. The NRA is also held accountable by freedom of speech and a free press.
It doesn’t matter if politicians like the press. The press is not there to be liked. The press is there to do the job of informing the American people. Like it or not. Is there problems with that? Of course there are. However, there are politicians of all stripes who would like to undermine the press as Nixon tried to so that they do not have to be accountable for wrongs they commit. When the news brings out the lies they tell, of course the politicians don’t like that. Nobody likes being caught in a lie. Of course the liars will try to undermine the credibility of the ones who expose the lies. By undermining a free press, by claiming free speech rights while taking away and suppressing that same right in others who do not agree with them, by calling the press the enemy of the people, not only does this attempt to normalize the idea that the press is always wrong, that there is no right to free speech and a free press except that which the government and those in authority in the government give, that is a direct frontal assault on the First Amendment, which is the check on a government which uses corrupt practices in order to benefit individuals within that government, not for the benefit of the American people, whether that benefit be the retention of power in ever greater amount, or the receiving of gross amounts of money.
The people have a right to know what its representative government is doing. The American people have a right to know in order to make the best informed decisions as to who should represent us to run the country. When we are not informed, we make terrible election choices. When we are not informed, we are increasingly dependent on the government to inform us and that cannot stand. No government no matter which party they represent, can be trusted to tell the truth, and to have our best interests at heart. And when that governments seeks absolute power by claiming they can’t tell us the truth because it is a “matter of national security,” (this is the cover most often selected behind which the government hides), then a nation can no longer claim to defend freedom.
The term “freedom of speech” has become so overused and eroded of late as to render it meaningless. When a public figure makes a claim and is criticized for it, they claim their freedom of speech is being compromised. We the people have adopted this as well. You can’t talk politics anymore with anyone without someone claiming their freedom of speech is being taken from them simply based on the fact that others don’t agree with them. This shuts down debate, and takes national discourse down with it. When we hold facts and education and educated people in disdain, we harm the First Amendment. We willfully hand over the reins of responsibility for self governance over to those who do not care about us nor have a vested interest in us. It is as Kierkegaard said:
People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.
Winston Churchill also saw this issue crop up. It is not a new problem. And this is where we are at as a nation right now. Everyone’s outraged. Consequently, there is no national discourse and politicians, having succeeded in dividing us and stymieing the national discourse are free to do as they like with only the press to check them because the American people have checked out on our collective responsibility of ensuring that our interests are carried out, not the interests of corporations and lobbies or individual politicians’ interests. The American people have abdicated the right to put a check on the people who they have chosen to represent them and it is a sad day in this country to see daily what happens when the people willingly hand over power to a few.
Everyone is in favor of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone else says anything back, that is an outrage.
Winston S. Churchill
We can love the press or hate it but it serves its purpose as a check when all three branches of the government fail. When corruption takes an absolute foothold on democracy and our leaders advocate for jailing journalists for reporting things those in charge don’t like, or claim that the press should “be loyal” to them, then we know as a people that something is wrong with the leaders we have chosen. Those who have attempted to bring down a free press (name any dictator throughout world history), have only succeeded in retaining power for a little while and the people with the press, have eventually brought them down. In this there is hope. For the truth will always out in the end.
Engage in your government folks! Write and call your representatives about every issue! Educate yourselves as to who these people are and what they represent to the best of your ability. Demand accountability and know that when the press is being attacked that these people are probably lying to you and they’re mad because they’re being found out. We may not like what each other has to say but we must always be willing to defend everyone’s right to say what they think. Always. We must defend facts. Education. Knowledge. We must always debate and be willing to engage with controversy.
Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both