There is a reason our early American leaders included freedom of the press in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
It is that important.
The older I get the more impressed I am with the wisdom of our Founding Fathers and those who came just after them. They foresaw developments that could threaten our democracy, and were wise enough to craft remedies to thwart them.
Those remedies will only work, however, if we employ them.
When I watch the news today I feel a mix of frustration, anger and even despair. There are norms our nation has followed for nearly 250 years, and I see far too many of them cast casually aside. Sadly the more these norms are abandoned, the more we simply shrug and move on.
Democracy is not a given. It must be constantly guarded and defended.
Perhaps our most valuable sentinel in that defense is freedom of the press.
I deeply admire Thomas Jefferson for his insight into democracy, and nowhere is that more clear than in his thoughts on the value of a free press. Now, during National Newspaper Week, I believe they bear repeating.
As Jefferson wrote to Edward Carrington in 1787, “The basis of our governments 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 not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
In 1823 Jefferson wrote that “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”
And perhaps most telling of all in this age of government spokespeople fanning out to the news shows to spread pure falsehoods, Jefferson wrote to G.K. von Hogendorp in 1785 that a despotic government always employs a standing army of newswriters who, “without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.”
When government leaders or their spokespeople deny a leader’s own words and deeds, calling reports of them them fake news or the product of a dishonest media, we all need to be concerned. Beyond that, we all need to step up, call it out, stamp it out, and be vigilant because it will happen again.
One of the very first – if not the first – act of an authoritarian or dictatorial government is to discredit and silence the news media. It is the first in a series of attacks to destroy freedom. The vacuum of reliable information challenging authoritarianism is a key element in allowing a despotic government to grow and thrive.
If democracy is to fall from within, and I believe it will collapse from within before it would fall to an outside power, if will happen in stages. First one, then another, norm of democracy will be case aside, and bit by bit we become inured to dangerous practices.
Eventually we could reach a point of no return, and I hope and pray that never happens
That is where freedom of the press and freedom of expression come in.
Yes there is an abundance of poor journalism out there, just as there are poor and crooked politicians, businessmen and those in any occupation. We need to be on our guard, and weed out the bad guys no matter what the field may be.
When it comes to journalism and the news, consider the source. If information comes from a source you are not familiar with or from a government toadie, question it. Check out the source or see the information verified by a source you do trust. I challenge you to get all your news from a wide variety of sources – as far as television is concerned check out liberal, conservative and middle of the road networks, and consider the various angles they take.
And certainly do not abandon newspapers. The print medium allows topics to be explored and examined in depth, to more deeply explore the various sides and components of an issue, and give you a depth of understanding of incalculable value.
The Bryan Times carries Associated Press reports, and the AP is a reliable source of news. AP vets its news well and almost always gets it right, and when they do get it wrong they correct those errors.
If we as a nation stop supporting newspapers, if we disregard news from reputable sources, we do so at our own peril.
Disregard what I say if you must, call me an alarmist and criticize me if you will, but my decades of experience and study regarding our press and the government have convinced me clearly that if we abandon our safeguards of a free press, may God have mercy on our democracy.
Don Allison is an author, columnist and the retired editor of The Bryan Times.