The free press has been at the crux of major societal changes since the founding of the United States. Journalists feel a ravenous hunger to investigate, to report, to opine and to amplify their first amendment rights -sometimes at the risk of their own peril. They can’t help it, and we’re better off for it.
Last month, the McCarthey Family Foundation offered up $8,000 in cash prizes to winning essayists who could explain why a free press matters in a democracy. Winners won’t be announced until next month on November 10. I decided to throw my hat in the ring. Below you’ll find my scribbling on the subject.
Democracy and The Free Press: Forever Bound
By Donald Aguirre
Why does a free press matter in a democracy? The premise of the question concedes its importance because it’s not if but why it matters. Asking more questions illuminates the path as to why it’s a necessary relationship. What would it look like in America with no free press? Maybe in some alternate universe potential printers would’ve kept seeking out “published by authority” stamps for their work to materialize? The reality is without the free press, there is no democracy. Without a vibrant and adversarial body, there is no accountability in government, no need for the First Amendment and therefore no need for a republic just a forever colony, ruled by a tyrant.
“No taxation without representation.”
Those five words gave preview to the earliest of demands for democratic representation and the press had a vital role in supporting a message that led to independence and the creation of free states. One of the most famous newspapers of that era being The Pennsylvania Journal, which published The American Crisis by Thomas Paine. Paine took to his journalistic endeavors to enlighten a populace under the yoke of the British Crown and inspired dissenting thought which gave way to the idea of American independence –and we know how that story ended.
“Publick Occurrences, Both Forreign and Domestick” was the first official newspaper to run in America. It was published on September 25, 1690, and it was shut down four days later by the local government. Benjamin Harris -the editor of the paper- was silenced because his publication both scrutinized the government and leapt at the chance of publishing an unflattering rumor swirling around members of the French royal family.
Harris could be considered the first American example of what the press is charged with –speaking truth to power. Journalists are to democracy, what antibiotics are to infections. Without them an ill body grows sicker and eventually dies depending on the level of toxicity –less life threatening infections never get better, they just stay sick. Hyperbole aside it’s quite clear that when a local newspaper shuts down the negative effects start locally and can spread wildly all the way to our nation’s capital. This ends up dividing the country -more than what it already is- and leaves democracy in a risky position.
The Week magazine put it this way when asking if we still need local news, “Only if things like schools, taxes, infrastructure, and government accountability matter to you.” The Social Science Research Network’s 2018 report indicated that when a newspaper shuts down government waste and inefficiency go up. The reason being? Lack of accountability and quality of governance -both things the free press reports on. The Brookings Institute also found in a 2015 report that with less coverage of congressional races the electorate isn’t motivated to make it to the ballot box. The consequence? Landslide victories of politicians who are less likely to cooperate with members of the opposing political party. This historically has led to gridlock in Washington which leads to less getting done.
While I would concede that The Washington Post sounds like that caped crusader with pointy ears when it declares “Democracy Dies In Darkness”, it’s not lying. Imagine the following, the president of the United States hires a group of operatives to break into a political opponent’s headquarters -sound familiar? His would-be thieves for hire are caught, they go to their arraignment, are slapped with fines and maybe spend a day or two in jail. That’s the end of the story. No Bob Woodward. No Carl Bernstein. No Watergate scandal. A lying, criminal president who won his election with a wildly large margin stays in office with no one reporting on any of his misdeeds. Does that sound like democracy to you?
President Richard Nixon was a far cry from Kim Jong Un. In a free society a newspaper can be published with less -not without- detrimental consequences. In places like North Korea saying the wrong thing can get you killed. Publishing something critical of the powers that be are a death sentence. Think I’m kidding? Just last year North Korea’s Central Court sentenced two South Korean journalists to death for writing a book review that infuriated leadership of the hermit kingdom. Meanwhile, here in the United States at least 10 different books have been published critical of President Donald Trump -to my knowledge none of the authors have been sentenced to death.
The free press has helped substantiate and bolster First Amendment rights time and time again. The most famous being the Supreme Court case New York Times v. United States -the New York Times won by the way. This challenge through the courts established journalists as defenders of the First Amendment due to the clause that the government would make no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. Through reporting journalists have been able to provide truth, opinion, and free expression -all vital for democracy to exist.
Journalists helped with the inception of this country by disseminating the call for freedom which gave way to democracy being selected as its form of government. The First Amendment has acted as a vital and sacred nutrient meant to keep the citizens of this country free from oppression. And the free press has helped keep the country healthy by acting as good stewards and sharing knowledge through the practice of journalism which has in turn strengthened democracy by rooting out corruption and malfeasance. Instead of all the blathering and calls for discredit of the so called “enemy of the people”, the free press should be revered for as long as journalists are able to do their job, we live in a free and democratic society -god help us if they cease to exist.