Have you ever wondered what life would be like without a free press?
There would be less rat-a-tat-tat media noise. Few bad news stories. More soothing television newscasts. Greater patriotic affirmation. Apps that glorified the government.
Sounds OK, right?
Until you also consider the consequences:
- It would be easy for government to control, manipulate and distort the news.
- The political party in power could smother dissenting voices and do whatever it pleased.
- You would know only what institutions and people with power and influence want you to know.
- You and your neighbors would be scared to death to publicly disagree with the government.
That’s the way life is in countries where the press is under the thumb of government. Places like China, Russia, North Korea, Cuba and Zimbabwe, to name a few totalitarian countries.
This week is Sunshine Week in America, a time to reflect on the importance of open government to our democracy and the critical role of the press to inform the people about whether government is serving them or not.
Sadly, the press has increasingly become a code word for the political polarization in America. President Donald Trump says we are the enemy of the people and among the most dishonest folks on the planet. He would lock us up and toss the key in the Potomac if he could.
But he can’t. The First Amendment won’t allow the president or anyone else to silence the press – no matter how much those in power dislike what we cover or how we report the news. They can rant and rave all they want and we will still be about and around.
That’s exactly what the nation’s founders had in mind when they created a free press and free speech as constitutional rights. They were not fond of the 18th century press, which treated politicians with bold disregard and even scurrilous scorn at times. There were no defamation boundaries then or journalism codes of conduct.
James Madison, author of the First Amendment, saw the press as bedrock to a representative democracy. He and his colleagues, having lived through the tyranny of a foreign power, wanted a press that could serve as proxy for the public by holding government officials accountable. No holds barred.
The result has been an evolution of the American press from papers tied to political parties to rumor mongering tabloids to mainstream media to a cornucopia of voices ringing out in print, over the air, through cable TV and online via the ubiquitous internet.
Under our system, no one has regulatory control over the press. Nor should they. Journalists are not licensed to practice like doctors and lawyers. We do not answer to a formal authority on questions of conduct, though libel and slander laws serve as restraint on deliberate disregard for the truth.
We do, however, answer to the marketplace. The public votes every day by deciding which news outlets they trust to report the truth as well as it can be determined. More and more, it seems, there’s a preference for those sources that confirm personal suspicions and assumptions, especially if the news runs counter to political preferences.
Still, the vast majority of the press remain committed to the core principles of fairness and accuracy: seeking truth through verification, and serving the public welfare. Biases are checked at the newsroom door by reporters, who are charged with chasing down facts and balance with open minds. Opinions are expressed by editorial boards in the opinion section.
Few institutions search their soul about these principles more openly than the press. When we error, we admit it and explain what went wrong. There is serious regret for mistakes.
That is important because journalism is an inexact endeavor. It is also among the most human of professions. As such, the work we do can be imperfect at times.
The real test comes with living up to the intent of Madison and other founders when they adopted the First Amendment – reporting the news without fear or favor, and holding government accountable to the people. When we do that, we serve our public purpose.
Or, put another way, we let the sun shine in.
Bill Ketter is senior vice president of news for Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc., owner of 120 newspapers and websites in 23 states. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.